Reporters at The Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer have uncovered that thousands of bright, low-income students are being excluded from advanced classes throughout North Carolina while their classmates from more affluent homes are not.

Reviewing seven years of student data revealed that third graders from affluent households with high math scores were nearly twice as likely to be labeled “gifted” as their classmates with similar scores from low-income families. News & Observer investigative reporter Joe Neff says that without that designation, poorer students who would otherwise qualify for AIG math classes are left out of accelerated courses that provide stepping stones throughout high school and beyond. The three-part story he co-wrote with Ann Doss Helms, and David Raynor is titled, ‘Why have thousands of smart, low-income NC students been excluded from advanced classes?'

Neff spoke with WFDD's David Ford.

On the uniqueness of this writing assignment and how it began:

We ended up getting an ocean of data—seven years—on every student, in every charter school, and every school district in North Carolina—all public schools. We know their race, socio-economic status, end of grade scores, grades, and the classes they took. And what this allows us to do that the school report cards don't—the school report cards are probably the most common form of records that people use to report on how schools are doing—but those are yearly snapshots. What we have here is longitudinal data that allows us to track the students over time from year to year. They get a grade in this class; what class are they taking after this?

So, we decided that we would focus on kids that have high potential. The first time they show up in this data is in their end of grade tests in the third grade. They take a math and a reading test. And so, we thought, ‘Let's look at the kids who are doing the best on those tests, and how do they progress through the system.' And we found an achievement gap based on socioeconomic status. Much of the reporting before this has been on the achievement gap but at the lower end, trying to bring everyone up to an acceptable standard. What we decided to do was look at the kids with potential, and [find out] is that potential being tapped.  

On the most common barriers for low-income students in NC excluded from accelerated learning opportunities:

Those are kids who scored really high on their math end-of-grade test in third grade, but weren't labeled gifted students in fourth grade with the AIG [academically or intellectually gifted students] program. Now, many school districts will take that end-of-grade scoring into consideration, but they also will use other tests: an aptitude test, an achievement test—nationally normed test. And some people say those tests actually put up barriers to some kids—kids from low-income families who have not been exposed to as many books, the language in the house was not as sophisticated, multisyllabic—they don't score that well on those tests. But when you compare very closely middle class kids scoring the same, they just get in [to gifted classes] at such a higher rate—at twice the rate—and it just raises the question: ‘Shouldn't some of these low-income kids be placed in these classes?'

On the role of parental advocacy on behalf of their children:

In one student's case in Raleigh that I went into at length in the second story, schools say, ‘Well, this kid was on the borderline. He's on the fence between getting put in these advanced math classes in middle school.' And if this parent hadn't been coached by a minister and by her cousin to go in and advocate for the kid, he would have fallen off this rigorous track and just would have been in the standard class. So, she had to every year go in and argue for him and he's actually now doing incredibly well. There's a quote in that story from her cousin, a teacher in Charlotte saying, ‘The parent voice always wins,' you know, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. And often times parents, like myself, I've sent kids through public school. My wife and I both have advanced degrees. We have social capital. We would know that we could go in and advocate for our kids to be put in different classes. And many low-income parents don't have that social capital. Maybe they only went to high school. Maybe English isn't their first language. So, advocacy is a real issue here.

All of North Carolina's ten largest school districts showed a larger proportion of superior math students from more affluent families are being placed in math classes for gifted students than their classmates from low-income families. The gap was both widest and narrowest in the Triad. Forsyth County had the widest disparity with nearly 70 percent of higher-income students taking AIG classes compared to less than 30 percent of low-income students matriculating into those programs. And in Guilford County, where administrators have focused on expanding the numbers of children accepted into gifted classes, that gap was less than 10 percent.










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