Actor Edward James Olmos, left, compares notes with high school teacher Jaime Escalante in 1988 during the filming of “Stand And Deliver.” Escalante inspired a national movement to help more students become high achievers. (Warner Bros, via AP)
Columnist

While working for The Washington Post in Los Angeles in 1982, I stumbled upon a math teacher named Jaime Escalante. He was helping large numbers of low-income Hispanic students master calculus and pass the Advanced Placement exam.

Such high achievement in urban schools was unusual then. It still is. Our national education policy has mostly ignored highfliers and has focused instead on getting low-performing students up to grade level. But just as the new Escalante postage stamps are shining a light on his achievements, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is finally giving states an opportunity to encourage their most-accomplished students.

A report by the Fordham Institute, “High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA,” describes in detail how states could make this happen. Then the report laments how badly almost all of them are doing at it, particularly in the Washington area:

● Just four states — Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho and Oregon — base at least half of a school’s rating on how much all students, including those at the top, have improved. Most have stuck with the old way of measuring just the percentage of students reaching a proficiency mark. That ignores increased achievement at the upper end of the scale.

● Just five states — Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Wyoming — separately report the progress of high-achieving students. Just 14 states give extra credit for students who reach an advanced level on state tests.

● Maryland and Virginia, the report says, do little to rate the progress of high-achieving students, though Maryland State Education Department spokesman William Reinhard said his state is making changes and said the Fordham report might be premature.

● The District is using a model that gives schools extra credit for students who reach an advanced level, but it does not report their progress separately and does not report how much all students have improved.

Sadly, federal regulators are making it even more difficult to do the right thing. The Fordham scholars — Michael J. Petrilli, David Griffith, Brandon Wright and Audrey Kim — say that the District and the 14 states that give extra credit for students at the advanced level would be violating U.S. Education Department draft rules if they continue to do so.

The report praises the previous federal No Child Left Behind law for making schools accountable in some way. But that law fixed on the percentage reaching the proficiency mark and little else.

“There was absolutely no incentive to worry about the achievement of those who had already reached, or were likely to reach, that bar,” the report says. “To put it bluntly, NCLB did some good for America’s struggling pupils, but for high achievers, it mostly hit the education pause button. . . . Those most victimized by this regime were high-achieving poor and minority students — kids who were dependent on the school system to cultivate their potential and accelerate their achievement.”

I produce for The Post an annual list, America’s Most Challenging High Schools, that ranks high schools based on participation rates in college-level AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams. Escalante, made famous by the film “Stand and Deliver,” inspired a national movement to help more students reach that level.

But in elementary schools and middle schools, the subject of the Fordham report, the best students don’t get as much of a challenge, usually no more than an occasional gifted class. “The country’s future economic competitiveness, scientific leadership, and national security depend on how successfully we maximize the learning of our ablest children,” the report says.

In the past, many states proved themselves incapable of raising standards beyond what federal rules forced on them. The District — plus Maryland, Virginia and the rest of the states — should not make this same mistake again. They have an opportunity under the new law to make it more likely that their best students will reach their full potential. They should seize it.