About this time every year, roughly 5,000 North Carolina 8-year-olds show they’re ready to shine. Despite the obstacles of poverty that hobble so many of their classmates, these third graders from low-income families take their first state exams and score at the top level in math.
With a proper push and support at school, these children could become scientists, engineers and innovators. They offer hope for lifting families out of poverty and making the state more competitive in a high-tech world.
But many of them aren’t getting that opportunity, an investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reveals. Thousands of low-income children who get “superior” marks on end-of-grade tests aren’t getting an equal shot at advanced classes designed to challenge gifted students.
As they start fourth grade, bright children from low-income families are much more likely to be excluded from the more rigorous classes than their peers from families with higher incomes, the analysis shows. The unequal treatment during the six years ending in 2015 resulted in 9,000 low-income children in North Carolina being counted out of classes that could have opened a new academic world to them.
This occurs in school districts across the state, in rural and urban areas, including the Triangle, which a recent Harvard study ranked as near the bottom of the country in economic mobility, the measure of how difficult it is for children from low-income households to climb out of poverty.
Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for academic advancement, said The N&O/Observer analysis was “disturbing.”
“I think there is a sobering punch in the gut about what is happening here,” she said.
The disparity continues and accumulates as students move on, with lower-income, high-achieving students less likely to get into the advanced classes that put them on the road to college. The sorting starts early, and it consistently works against children from low-income homes:
▪ In 2015, one of every three low-income students with superior math scores was labeled gifted, compared to one out of two high-scoring students whose family income was too high to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
▪ In 2015, Wake County filled 291 gifted slots with higher-income fourth graders who had average end-of-grade math scores. At the same time, 228 low-income children with superior scores were left out. This also occurred in several other large districts, including Durham, Guilford and Forsyth.
▪ 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 one of every two low-income third graders who scored above grade level in 2010 took high school math in middle school, compared with three of four more affluent students with the same scores.
▪ Even those low-income students who start high school math in middle school are far less likely to take Advanced Placement math classes in high school than classmates with similar scores but more family income.
To be sure, not all high-scoring students from higher-income homes get into gifted classes. Most school districts screen with aptitude and achievement tests, not just end-of-grade scores, the measure used by The N&O analysis. Some also use more subjective measures such as teacher or parent observations about a student’s behavior and motivation.
But year after year, a greater proportion of low-income children with superior scores are sent to traditional, less-challenging classes, the analysis shows.
Often, the discussion of poverty and education focuses on failing students. But bright young people need ladders rather than nets.
They’re students such as Christian Bell, a high-scoring student in Raleigh who repeatedly was left out of advanced classes in middle school. Each year, his mother, a cousin who is an educator and a minister fought to put him back on track. Or Damian Ochoa Obregon, a Durham student who was placed accidentally in the same math class a second time when he should have been promoted to an honors class.
The benefits of rigorous and challenging classes begin early and build over time. The effects are cumulative, since success in earlier grades leads to more opportunities and benefits in later years. Poor students with potential need help the most, and have the most to lose if they fall off the honors track.
“Students who show promise need to be challenged,” said Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools. “Schools need to see their promise and push them into more rigorous classes early so they aren’t left behind and left out.”
The N&O/Observer investigation analyzed seven years of records of the roughly 1.2 million students in North Carolina public schools each year. State education officials gather the records and use them to produce annual reports on the state’s 115 school districts.
Even so, school officials have not harnessed the broad information in the data to track children over time to check on disparate treatment. Many educators had never seen the data analyzed by income and achievement level, and many said the results confirmed their suspicions.
The investigation found a web of barriers to smart students from impoverished homes. When school systems decide who is gifted, for example, they often rely on tests that are touted as revealing raw aptitude, not the achievements reflected in end-of-grade scores.
But the author of the most-used aptitude test says results are shaped by factors such as exposure to sophisticated language and all the other advantages – or disadvantages – that children bring from home. That is why, critics say, gifted programs that screen using aptitude tests consistently shortchange low-income, black and Hispanic students.
In many urban areas, including the Triangle and Charlotte, many low-income students are clustered in schools where the focus is on helping students master basic skills. Some high-fliers flee to magnet or charter schools, but those who are left can find themselves with few high-scoring classmates and a dearth of advanced classes.
In middle and high school, class assignments determine whether a bright student stays on the fast track. For some, parents ride herd to make sure their kids get the most advanced classes. For others, that task may be left to overworked counselors; many parents in poor households defer to teachers and counselors as experts who know best.
The first step toward advanced classes comes when elementary schools label some students gifted. That funnels bright students into sessions with veteran teachers and high-performing classmates. They get pushed to perform rather than becoming bored in standard classes.
The students’ first measure in statewide data comes from their end-of-grade tests in third grade. The scores are on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 signifying that the student performed above grade level, or superior.
In Wake County, 24 percent of low-income third graders scoring a 5 in 2014 were labeled gifted in math the following school year. The percentage for their higher-income counterparts was more than twice as high: 54 percent.
Wake County officials point out that just as an A grade on a report card can range from 90 to 100, an end-of-grade score of 5 covers a range of scores.
The N&O examined those specific scores. At almost every score within the top level, Wake County placed a lower percentage of low-income students in gifted classes. If low-income students were admitted at the same rate as their more affluent classmates, Wake County would have placed 83 percent more low-income children into gifted classes. In 2015, that would have translated into 74 more children getting a chance.
Wake County officials say that while end-of-grade scores can play a role in the selection process, other tests are more important. Wake schools use a complicated selection process that uses national aptitude and achievement tests with names such as CogAT, Iowa and WJ IV.
A student who scores at the 95th percentile on two of those tests is declared gifted. The Wake policy shows little room for subjective judgment. Wake’s stated goal is to select children who rank in the top 5 percent of these national tests. Overall, 25 percent of Wake’s more affluent fourth-grade students were labeled gifted in math in 2015, versus 3 percent of students from lower-income households.
Wake officials say it’s unfair to compare a student’s end-of-grade score with the most-used test, known as CogAT. They say the former measures achievement while the latter measures innate ability, a quality they seek.
“The two are completely unrelated,” said Moore, the Wake deputy superintendent.
The author of the CogAT, David Lohman, disagrees. Commonly-held beliefs about the power to separate ability from achievement are much closer to folk theories than to science, Lohman, a retired University of Iowa professor, has written.
Using two different words – achievement and ability – doesn’t mean the tests measure two distinct things, he wrote in a 2005 paper. “The two scores overlap much more than they differ,” Lohman wrote.
Matthew Makel, research director at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, says Lohman is correct.
His program recommends a gifted label for any student scoring 95 percent or higher on any achievement or aptitude test, whether the CogAT or Iowa or the end-of-grade tests. Makel said success on one test is better than requiring it for a battery of tests. “Multiple criteria can also mean multiple hurdles,” Makel said.
Those hurdles often trip up low-income students. In several large school systems, more non-poor students who test at grade level are labeled gifted than are low-income students who score above grade level, or superior.
For the 2014 school year in Wake County, 228 low-income third-graders scored a 5 – superior, or above grade level – on their math end-of-grade tests and did not get into a gifted math class the following year.
Yet 291 more affluent students who scored a 4 – solid, or at grade level – qualified as gifted.
Paying for extra tests
Families who can afford it have an additional way into the classes for gifted students. Wake and Mecklenburg allow parents to submit the results of tests administered by a private psychologist. A privately administered test can cost from $675 to $1,200, depending on the age of the student.
“Parents feel the schools’ testing doesn’t capture their child’s potential,” said Dr. Kristen Wynns, a Cary psychologist. Wynns and her colleagues administer the tests in a one-on-one setting, using blocks, patterns and oral questioning. Schools generally use a fill-in-the-bubble test in group settings.
Wynns said the gifted classes are a godsend for many students.
“It keeps them from getting bored and it meets their intellectual needs,” she said.
Wake and Mecklenburg say they don’t track the number of students who are accepted into advanced classes after private testing. A study of gifted students in one Florida county suggests it could be substantial. Laura Giuliano, an economist at the University of Miami, said her research found that 25 percent of the gifted students who weren’t poor were admitted through private testing.
Linda Robinson, a veteran Wake County teacher and the past president of the N.C. Association for the Gifted and Talented, said research has identified two conditions that can mask a bright child’s potential on aptitude tests.
“Students who experience poverty, or English is not the language in their home, they don’t have the same opportunity to demonstrate their potential,” Robinson said. “It’s as if we are trying to measure the size of their bucket, but their bucket’s got holes.”
A professor at N.C. State and East Carolina University, Robinson also teaches part-time at Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh, where the student body is 83 percent poor. In her classroom, she manages to include high-performing students who fall short of the official gifted cutoff.
“I’ve taught gifted learners for over 30 years...and I’ll match them against any that I’ve ever taught,” she said.
Changing any such system involves either expanding the number of slots for gifted children or the loss of spots for others.
Shelagh Gallagher, a former professor of gifted education at UNC Charlotte, says some of the strongest resistance to changing the standards comes from parents whose children have already been labeled gifted: “People get very, very defensive. They get angry.”
She says identifying and cultivating the most talented students of poverty is essential: “They can create the path out of the poverty cycle that others can follow.”
Gallagher cites a pair of misperceptions that throw up barriers to that quest: Too many people believe there are no gifted children in schools where most classmates struggle. And low-income families may see gifted programs as a perk for the elite.
Smaller gap in Guilford
Each of the state’s 115 school districts sets its own policy on gifted students. In most districts, among high-scoring students there’s a gap between the selection rate of low-income students and those of their higher-income classmates.
But one major school district shows little disparity.
For third-graders who scored above grade level in math in Guilford County in 2014, 79 percent of low-income students were labeled gifted in math, and 87 percent of the other students. That is a policy choice, albeit one that’s still evolving, said Dibrelle Tourret, the head of gifted programs for the school district.
Students take screening tests in the second half of third grade. Those scoring 85 percent or higher on either the CogAT or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills get into the gifted program. That’s a lower threshold than the one used in Wake and many other districts.
But it will change next school year. After facing complaints that it was admitting some students who weren’t ready, the district will adjust the cutoff point to 90 percent and higher, still a lower threshold than many other districts.
The second difference comes when end-of-grade scores come in at the end of the school year. Teachers automatically re-evaluate all students who notch a superior score. Most are admitted, Tourret said.
Tourret said gifted classes are especially effective for math students. The goal is to place all qualified students into accelerated math classes in middle school so they can begin high school math in eighth grade.
“You have to be careful with accelerated math in middle school because it doesn’t work for everyone,” she said. “But we really want our bright students to take an AP math class, a college math class, as a junior.”
The data shows that Guilford is getting results. Looking at the graduating class of 2015, Guilford had twice as many low-income middle-school students labeled gifted as Wake, which has more than twice the enrollment. In Guilford, 80 percent of those students took an AP class in high school, compared to 68 percent in Wake.
Montlieu Academy of Technology is a magnet school in High Point where 98 percent of the students are from low-income households and 95 percent are minority.
Melanie Cronin has been leading her fifth-grade math class through number bases. The decimal system, or base 10, is used in most societies today, with digits running from 0 to 9.
Base 2, the binary system used in computer coding, has two digits, 0 and 1. Students mastered the Roman numeral system based on digits including X, M, C, V and I. They struggled with the Mayan base 20 system, whose numbers are a combination of dots, bars and a shell.
The most challenging, according to fifth-grader Jonah Lilly, was the Babylonian system, which is base 60 and written in cuneiform characters.
“Aren’t you glad they invented the number zero?” Jonah asked his friend, Grayson Batzin-Lopez.
Jonah had hit upon the key limitation of Babylonian bookkeeping: no zero.
Cronin said her favorite part of the job is pushing students to master difficult and advanced ideas.
“It’s hard, but they get there, and it gives them confidence,” Cronin said.
Today: High hurdles for poor
Monday: Fighting for a chance
Tuesday: New policies that could help
Who’s in charge?
North Carolina’s education system has many independent pieces, and often it’s not clear who’s in charge.
The General Assembly allocates the money for local schools and writes education law. The State Board of Education sets policy. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction implements these laws and policies. And each of the state's 115 school districts has an elected board, which hires a superintendent to run the schools.
In fact, the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction are squaring off in court to determine who is in control of the state’s education department. This action comes after legislators passed a new law giving more hiring clout to new Superintendent Mark Johnson.
When it comes to programs to push and support gifted students, state law lets local school boards set policy on how to choose children for the programs.
The General Assembly gives each district a gifted supplement tied to the district’s enrollment. Many districts supplement that money with local contributions.
How students get in
There are 115 school districts in North Carolina and 115 different policies on gifted programs, known in academic jargon as AIG, for Academically and Intellectually Gifted.
The policies differ on how students are identified, what services are offered, and how much money each district spends in addition to the contribution from the state based on the district’s enrollment.
Most districts administer national tests for aptitude (the most common is called CogAT) and achievement (a common one is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.) Here’s how local districts made their decisions this year:
All third graders take the CogAT aptitude test. The district has a complicated chart showing five paths into the gifted program, but in essence it requires students need to score 95% or higher on national aptitude and achievement tests. Unlike other districts, the policy does not contain teacher evaluations or other subjective judgments.
▪ State funding: $8.7 million; district: $2.1 million
All second graders take the CogAT. Students are automatically identified as gifted with a score of 97% or higher .
Students can enter if they fit two of the following three criteria: an aptitude test of 90% or higher; an achievement test of 90% or higher; a 90 average in the classroom or above grade level on an end-of-grade test.
▪ State funding: $1.8 million; district: $4.3 million
All third graders take the CogAT.
To be labeled gifted, students must score 90 percent or higher on an aptitude test; score 95 percent or higher on an achievement test, which includes the state end-of-grade test; and have a successful interview, teacher evaluation, or portfolio of qualifying supporting evidence. The district also accepts evaluations from private psychologists.
▪ State funding: $630,000; district: $1.1 million
All third graders take the CogAT. Students scoring 95 percent or higher on an aptitude test qualify.
Students scoring 95 percent or higher on an achievement test qualify if they also perform well on a teacher-administered screening.
▪ State funding: $650,000; district: $250,000
All third graders take the CogAT unless parents opt out.
A panel of school and central office representatives choose students based on some, but not necessarily all, of the following factors: 90 percent or higher on CogAT; 90 percent or higher on an achievement test, including the state end-of-grade tests; teacher or parent observations; the student’s overall performance.
▪ State funding: $1.8 million; district: $161,000
About the analysis
To report this series, The News & Observer acquired seven years of student-level data for the state’s 115 school districts and charter schools from the state Department of Public Instruction. Each year, it includes the end-of-grade scores for nearly 700,000 North Carolina elementary and middle-school students and similar data for roughly 455,000 high school students.
This is the same data used by DPI to produce its annual report cards – snapshots about the performance of schools. Our analysis went deeper to compare the experiences of high-scoring students from low-income households with those of their higher-income classmates.
We don’t know who the students are. But unique ID numbers allowed us to track the students from year to year and to follow how schools assign those students from class to class.
We did find racial disparities among high-scoring students: Among more affluent students, Asians are more likely to be placed in rigorous classes, while black and Hispanic students are less likely. Whites are placed at a rate equal to the state average.
But we focused on low-income students, measured by those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Year in and year out, a smaller proportion of low-income third graders who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests get on the track of advanced courses compared to their more affluent classmates. And more of these students slip through the cracks as the years go by.
We focused on math for several reasons: it is sequential, so students who fall behind find it difficult to catch up; measuring math skills is less subjective than areas such as reading and social sciences; and as a student progresses, math scores help determine enrollment in high school classes such as chemistry, biology and physics.
These end-of-grade tests measure achievement and start in the third grade, when students take their first state reading and math exams. Many school districts use other measures, such as aptitude tests and teacher screenings, to decide admission to gifted programs. Some also consider the end-of-grade scores.
The end-of-grade tests aren’t a perfect measure, but they’re important enough that North Carolina lawmakers and education officials have long used them to shape public policy and spending decisions. We were not able to obtain the results of aptitude tests.