Politics & Government

Many bright, low-income NC kids are kept out of advanced classes. Delay could continue.

North Carolina school districts could get a one-year delay from having to follow a new state law that requires them to place high-achieving students in advanced math courses.

Last 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 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.

But on Wednesday, the House Education Committee backed a bill that would delay implementation of the advanced math requirements for the 2019-20 school year. Lawmakers said they want to give school districts more time to see how to carry out the legislation’s requirements.

“This is going to delay implementation for a year so that (school districts) can report back on how are you dealing with this so that we have a better understanding of are we short on staff, are we short on math teachers to even implement the piece,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican and co-chairman of the House Education Committee.

The Senate had unanimously passed Senate Bill 500 in May to make technical changes to last year’s math bill. On Wednesday, the House Education Committee introduced several changes, such as the one-year delay.

One of the most debated changes Wednesday eliminates the requirement that seventh-grade students who score a Level 5 be placed in a high school level math course in eighth grade.

Counted Out showed how 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.

Legislative staff cited Wednesday how 100 schools don’t offer high school math in eighth grade. But Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said he was concerned about dropping the requirement because those schools likely have many minority students.

“I would rather go forward than backward on this issue,” Meyer said.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, said it’s wrongheaded to feel that students can’t take high school math in eighth grade.

“We’re holding back a lot of kids who are capable of doing advanced math,” he said.

But Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said what they also don’t want to do is put eighth-grade students in a situation where they’re not ready for high school math.

“What we need to focus on is not forcing children into a situation where they’re going to flounder,” he said.

The revised version of the bill now goes to the House Rules Committee. It would then go to the full House and back to the Senate to see if it agrees with the changes.

“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.

Wake County school leaders have complained that last year’s law was difficult to carry out.

But Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s division of advanced learning and gifted education, told lawmakers on Wednesday that many districts think last year’s bill was movement in the right direction.

Shah-Coltrane said many districts have implemented the law, such as a district that found that 12 high-scoring students, the majority of whom are Hispanic, weren’t tagged for an advanced math course. She said that with support those students “have been incredibly successful.”

“Some of our biases do keep students from these opportunities so this legislation has really helped to ensure that a second look is made,” Shah-Coltrane said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.