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Low-income, high-ability students need more support

While the Nevada Legislature has been grabbing headlines in recent weeks with a series of education reform bills, you might have missed the “report card” released by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation revealing how Nevada schools are woefully neglecting gifted students from low-income backgrounds.

It analyzed state-level policies and actual student performance to evaluate how well each state cultivates the skills of the most academically talented but economically vulnerable students. While no state received an “A,” Nevada didn’t even measure up by any measure, earning just a “C” for its policies and an abysmal “D+” for its student performances. It did, however, at least fare better than Arizona and California.

Whatever your views are of the contentious issues being debated in Carson City, everyone should agree that the poor grades Nevada received for its support (or lack thereof) for advanced learners from low-income backgrounds are unacceptable.

That lackluster showing isn’t just about ignoring social justice; it holds profound implications for Nevada’s future. The state’s economy will increasingly be driven by entrepreneurship, so we need brilliantly creative minds to emerge in larger numbers, and not just those whose families are wealthy or middle class. Most education policy discussions are focused on meeting minimum standards, which is certainly important for providing a skilled workforce, but it won’t be enough without the kind of innovation that only those with the highest natural abilities can offer — if those abilities have the chance to blossom.

Staying competitive in the 21st-century global marketplace means drawing from a broad range of talent in order to tap more individuals from the very top. With fully 48 percent of Nevada’s children under 18 living in low-income households, it is unfathomable why the state does not better monitor local schools’ provision of services for the children with the greatest abilities, in order to better nurture their talents and fulfill their potential.

These students are consistently overlooked, which has created a widening excellence gap — the measurable difference among lower-income versus higher-income students who reach advanced levels of academic performance. The excellence gap appears in elementary school and worsens throughout middle and high school.

This is different than the achievement gap, which gets far more attention and is also important. But raising the performance of all students in order to meet basic levels of achievement shouldn’t come at the expense of those capable of excellence. Because they do so frequently outperform their classmates, it’s often assumed that the most gifted students don’t need any additional help. They usually surpass the minimum standards, but if they don’t get extra guidance and enrichment opportunities, they will backslide, and their talent will be needlessly wasted.

The excellence gap is easily observed in the testing results from National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 2 percent of Nevada’s low-income students scored at the advanced level in fourth grade reading, and the same proportion in fourth grade math — barely a blip on the radar. Compare that with middle- and high-income students: 10 percent of those students reached the advanced level in fourth grade reading and 7 percent in math.

Low-income students in the eighth grade didn’t do much better — 2 percent reached advanced levels in reading and just 1 percent in math.

What does that mean in reality? Even small improvements in narrowing the excellence gap nationwide could yield 85,000 additional students scoring at advanced levels per grade, or about 1 million high performers overall — the next generation of leaders.

A far more comprehensive and coherent plan is needed, which can only be managed by the state. Lawmakers would be well-advised to make gifted education a bigger priority. A great start would be to hold local schools accountable for providing accelerated learning opportunities, participate in international assessments, and require gifted education coursework for educator licensure. These reforms are simple, straightforward and cost effective to implement.

It’s an easy approach that could make all the difference for Nevada’s long-term success.

Harold Levy, former New York City schools chancellor, is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards the largest individual scholarships to high-performing students with financial need.

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