When Victor Guevara took the SAT in seventh grade, his math scores topped those of the average college-bound senior, winning him recognition from Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.
But when Victor started eighth grade at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Albemarle Road Middle School, he wasn’t enrolled in Math 1, the high school course that gets high-achieving middle school students launched on the kind of transcript that will get them into college.
Fortunately, his counselor caught the error and moved him into the advanced math class. She caught it even though she’s keeping tabs on more than 400 of his classmates, most of whom come from low-income homes and score below grade level on math and reading exams.
Victor wants to be an engineer. His parents, who come from El Salvador and don’t speak English, are proud of his academic talent but know little about the American education system.
His father, Victorino Guevara, works in a restaurant. He said through an interpreter that he worries about pushing his son too hard in school, lest Victor fail and get discouraged. College seems beyond reach.
“Some of these things seem impossible,” Victorino Guevara said. “When one is a child you have dreams, but often we don’t have the opportunity to be able to meet those dreams.”
Victor Guevara talks with teacher Kiara Cox about his testing results in Math I class at Albemarle Road Middle School
Helping him meet his dreams falls to his school counselor, Adrienne Sowell, and volunteers at Central United Methodist Church, who work with the family and are pushing Victor to reach his potential.
Albemarle Road Middle, a neighborhood middle school in east Charlotte, has such a high poverty level that all students automatically get free breakfast and lunch. Last year Victor was among only 6 percent of his seventh-grade class to earn a Level 5, the highest score, on the state math exam.
Victor stands out for his drive and skill, Sowell says: “He’s just phenomenal.”
In many high-poverty neighborhood schools, magnet programs are seen as the best path to keep star students on track.
Louise Woods, a church volunteer and former school board member, thought Victor would flourish at an International Baccalaureate program in East Mecklenburg High next year.
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 found 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.
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.
Higher-income fourth-graders labeled gifted in Wake County in 2015 with average end-of-grade math scores
Lower-income fourth graders left out of gifted classes in Wake County in 2015 with superior end-of-grade math scores
$675 to $1,200
Cost of a private evaluation that can be used to admit a child to gifted classes
Percentage of Wake's higher-income fourth graders labeled gifted in 2015
Percentage of Wake's lower-income fourth graders labeled gifted in 2015
Number of low-income 2015 Guilford graduates who were labeled gifted in middle school
Number of low-income 2015 Wake graduates who were labeled gifted in middle school
North Carolina's education system has many independent pieces, and often it's not clear just 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 just 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.
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 a 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 make their decisions:
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 both aptitude and achievement tests. Unlike other districts, the policy does not contain teacher evaluations or other subjective judgments.
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 the highest score 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. Chapel Hill 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
Victor’s mother, Maria Villatoro, said in December that she didn’t know much about magnets and found them a bit intimidating: “It seems like the kids in those schools aren’t normal,” she said through an interpreter. “They’re very intelligent.”
His father said it’s better for Victor to succeed in a regular class than try something too hard and fail. He worried that if Victor needed help, a magnet school might not offer extra help. “When we fail we get discouraged,” he said. “Victor’s motivated and doing so well.”
But Victor liked the idea of going to East Meck. Woods took him to an open house and helped him complete the district’s online application.
In March he learned he’d gotten in. One of the first ninth-grade classes he signed up for is engineering design.
In April, Victor’s parents said they’re enthusiastic about East Meck. They haven’t been inside yet, but they believe it’s a good option for their son.
“He can do it,” he mother said. “If he sees a challenge ahead of him, he’ll step up to the plate.”