First, the good news: it turns out, millions of kids from low-income families are acing standardized tests. According to the first nationwide analysis of high-achieving students based on income, more than 1 million K-12 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches rank in the top quartile. Expand the category to include children whose families make less than the median U.S. income, and the total rises to 3.4 million--more than the entire population of Iowa. Now the bad news: nearly half of lower-income students in the top tier in reading fall out of it by fifth grade. As economically disadvantaged brainiacs get older, 25% of them drop ranks in math in high school, and 41% don't finish college. "We're losing them at every stage in education," says Joshua Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which wrote the report with public-policy development firm Civic Enterprises.
These groups are trying to get the No Child Left Behind Act to at least start keeping tabs on advanced learners. One proposal on Capitol Hill would go a step further by giving schools credit for moving kids from proficient to advanced levels. But how to spot early potential?
To help increase opportunities for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, Miami- Dade County public schools last year began testing all 23,000 first-graders using a culture-neutral, language-free assessment that requires no reading, writing or speaking. The result? The number of first-graders screened for gifted placement shot up from some 100 the previous year to nearly 3,000. Says deputy superintendent Antoinette Dunbar of the decision to start testing every first-grader for giftedness: "Sometimes we overlook the very obvious."