For years, the majority of high-performing black and Hispanic middle school students in Wake County have been shut out of advanced math classes that would put them on track for top-flight colleges.
Under old selection guidelines that relied more on teacher judgment than test scores, data from the SAS Institute shows that more than half of the qualified minority middle school students were not put in those advanced math courses, statistics that confirmed the complaints of some parents of those students.
New test-driven guidelines using a SAS program - urged on staff by the school board majority that swept into office last fall - will increase minority enrollment in those courses this school year.
"Sometimes we have to help staff realize what students can do," Marvin Connelly, assistant superintendent for student support services, said about the new guidelines at a recent back-to-school forum in Southeast Raleigh.
School board member John Tedesco, a key member of the majority, blamed the low selection rate for advanced math classes in part on teacher training that he said helped perpetuate stereotypes of poor and minority students.
Until this past school year, Wake trained teachers with Ruby Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," to try to help middle-class educators relate to poor students. Teachers were told that poor people know how to look in garbage bins of grocery stores for thrown-away food while middle-class families know how to get a library card.
Tedesco said this training, along with the district's discarded diversity policy that defined poor children as being at risk of academic failure, resulted in schools and teachers focusing on students' income level and not their academic ability.
"You set a culture of low expectations for students," said Tedesco, a member of the new board majority which scrapped the policy of trying to balance schools by socioeconomic level. "You were dispersing the students around instead of meeting the individual needs of students."
But Peg Conrad, a vice president for aha! Process, the Texas-based education company founded by Payne, said the schools that use the author's methods have raised academic expectations and student achievement. Conrad said Payne's work doesn't stereotype but is based on looking at things through the lens of economic class.
"This work is based on patterns - and there are many exceptions to these patterns," Conrad wrote in a statement. "When one stays focused on the economic realities, it often indicates that these patterns arise out of economic environments and not the other way around."
What SAS analysis found
Back when teacher judgment carried more weight in advanced placement recommendations, there were notable racial and ethnic disparities in which students were included in advance math classes.
In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the SAS Institute showed that more than half of white and Asian students in Wake who were qualified to take Algebra I in eighth grade were enrolled in the course. But the placement percentage for similarly qualified black and Hispanic students was only about 40 percent.
The gap was even wider in 2006, when only 19 percent of Wake's highest scoring black male middle school students were placed in advanced math classes. Wake school administrators have been looking into the Algebra I placement issue since 2006.
North Carolina students must pass the state exam in Algebra I to graduate. But students who complete Algebra I in middle school are in a better position to take the advanced math and science courses in high school that many universities see as a desirable qualification for applicants.
Janet Johnson, the chief executive officer of EDSTAR, a Raleigh company that works with SAS, said teachers she interviewed gave reasons for student placement that had nothing to do with academics. For instance, she said, one Wake teacher told her she didn't recommend placing any Hispanic students in advanced classes because she felt it would put too much pressure on them.
Joi Dunn, an eighth-grade Algebra I teacher and math department chairwoman at North Garner Middle School, said she has heard similar reasons from teachers at other schools to justify keeping children out of advanced classes.
"It was shocking and disturbing, as a minority, to hear that people weren't being put in a class because or their race or income," said Dunn, who is African-American.
The new guidelines
For the 2010-11 school year, middle schools are now expected to place students in advanced math classes if the SAS Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) predicts they have at least a 70 percent chance of doing well. According to SAS, 96 percent of the students who've been deemed ready for Algebra I by EVAAS went on to pass the state exam.
Under the new guidelines, principals have to give compelling reasons in writing why the EVAAS data is being overridden to deny placement of any student. Teacher judgment is still a factor, but Connelly, the assistant superintendent, said it's expected to be used to recommend placing students, not to exclude them.
The new guidelines mean middle schools are offering additional classes in sixth-grade advanced math and seventh-grade pre-algebra. Several middle school principals said they're seeing 60 to 90 more students in their pre-algebra classes this year.
Effects on classes
Algebra I enrollment isn't expected to grow much until next school year because schools aren't expected to admit students who haven't taken pre-algebra.
Kim Bowling, who teaches pre-algebra at North Garner Middle, said her classes haven't been watered down to accommodate the additional students. But she said she's taking more time to make sure the students understand the concepts.
"The kids have risen to the challenge," Bowling said. "They're excited about the opportunity to be in the class."
The new guidelines were welcomed by Lalonzo Chambers, a Southeast Raleigh middle school parent.
"We need to make sure parents know about these changes," Chambers said.
The new guidelines are also being met with praise from both supporters and opponents of the old socioeconomic diversity policy as a way to make sure students' academic needs are being met.
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