Politics & Government

NC aims to get bright students into advanced classes. But Wake says law falls short.

A new state law designed to ensure that high-scoring students aren’t skipped over for advanced classes is drawing complaints from North Carolina’s largest school system that the legislation is difficult to carry out.

In June, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation to require schools to place in advanced math classes any students who scored a Level 5 — the highest level on state math exams. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have credited the law to the 2017 News & Observer and Charlotte Observer “Counted Out” series that showed that thousands of bright, low-income students were being excluded from advanced classes.

The law went into effect this school year, although Wake County school officials say that districts are being allowed to hold off in elementary schools. As schools figure out how to make the new law a reality, Wake County school administrators and school board members are citing difficulties such as lack of new state funding or specifics on how to carry out the requirements.

“The path to a Level 5 for every child who now need some acceleration is not the same,” Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore said at a school board committee meeting Monday. “That’s not contemplated in the legislation.”

Supporters of the law say they recognize that changes can be made, such as providing funding. But state Rep. Chris Malone, a Republican from Wake Forest who co-sponsored the legislation, said it’s the job of school districts in the meantime to make it work.

“I understand grumbling, but this is the law,” Malone, a former Wake school board member, said in an interview Tuesday. “We can’t argue this because we can’t treat some kids one way and some another. That’s not fair or right.

“Every kid deserves an opportunity. We provided them the law, and they need to figure out how to do it.”

“Counted Out” showed that as bright children from low-income families start fourth grade, they are much more likely to be excluded from the more rigorous classes than their peers from families with higher incomes. Schools begin testing students in third grade for placement in academically gifted programs in fourth grade.

For instance, the series showed that Wake County in 2015 filled 291 gifted slots with higher-income fourth graders who had average state math scores. At the same time, 228 low-income children with superior scores were left out.

The unequal treatment during the six years ending in 2015 resulted in 9,000 low-income children in North Carolina being kept out of classes that could have opened a new academic world to them.

‘The same challenges’ everywhere

As previously reported, these high-potential, low-income students are less likely to take high school math in middle school, an important step toward the type of transcript that will open college doors. Only 1 of every 2 low-income third-graders who scored above grade level in 2010 took high school math in middle school, compared with 3 of 4 more-affluent students with the same scores.

School districts across the state are now working to implement the legislation, which says these high-scoring students can’t be excluded from taking advanced math courses unless their parent or guardian provides written consent to opt out.

“Everyone across the state is having the same questions we’re having, the same challenges we’re having,” Michelle Tucker, Wake’s director of K-12 math, told school board members Monday.

One of the law’s requirements is that seventh-grade students who score a Level 5 in math must be placed in a high school level math course in 8th grade. Tucker said 99 percent of Wake students were properly placed, but they had to change the assignments for 155 eighth-grade students to get them into the more advanced math course this fall.

Tucker said the problem is those 155 students are taking the advanced course without having covered the material they would have taken in regular eighth-grade math. She said it’s been challenging for math teachers to find the time to help those 155 students catch up on the missing material while also teaching the whole class the high school content.

School board vice chairman Jim Martin said this is an example of the problem of placing students in advanced courses based solely on a single test score. Martin said it’s not equitable for students who are pushed into advanced courses to only get a C when they could have gotten an A if they had taken more time to build a stronger foundation.

“What I’m seeing in my classes and what I hear from math faculty and many faculty at universities is we’re getting a lot more yes I can mechanically go through it but I have no clue what it means,” said Martin, who is an N.C. State University chemistry professor. “This continues to be my concern about this kind of legislation.”

Some flexibility

While the legislation is being implemented at middle and high schools, Tucker said the state Department of Public Instruction is giving school districts flexibility to wait until the 2019-20 school year to implement the law in elementary schools. Malone, the legislator, said he’s not happy about the delay but will accept it because it’s coming from DPI.

The law gives school districts an out by saying they’re to offer the advanced courses “when practicable.” Tucker said one of the things that needs to be determined is what’s practicable.

One of the reasons behind the law’s passage is the concern that school districts excluded qualified minority and low-income students from advanced courses. But Tucker said Wake is worried the law will result in advanced math classes in elementary schools being heavily over-represented by students from some groups, mainly white and Asian students.

Tucker also said that there are no advanced math courses offered in elementary schools, although a central point of “Counted Out” is that bright low-income students are being excluded from academically gifted programs. Moore, the superintendent, said in an interview that Wake will look at whether its placement guidelines need to be changed because of the new law.

But Moore added that the new law doesn’t contemplate the realities of how it will be implemented, so districts need to figure out what will be the long-term impact of the legislation.

If re-elected in November, Malone said one of the first bills he’ll introduce will include changes to the legislation, along with some new state funding. But he said there’s no doubt that the new law is providing needed education changes.

“Moms and dads know better than anyone else why it’s important for them to get into these classes,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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