A year after a News & Observer and Charlotte Observer series showed that thousands of bright, low-income students were being excluded from advanced classes, state lawmakers took steps Wednesday to address the issue.
The state House voted 114-0 to back a bill that requires North Carolina public schools to place in advanced math classes any students who scored a Level 5 — the highest level on state end-of-grade or end-of-course math exams. Lawmakers pointed to the N&O and Observer's "Counted Out" series for why the legislation is needed.
"An investigation by the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer that spanned all of North Carolina's districts, with testimony by some of this state and this nation's most brilliant educational minds, revealed the truth," Rep. Ed Hanes, a Forsyth County Democrat, said before the vote. "That truth is that thousands of low-income children who get superior marks on end-of-grade tests are not getting an equal shot at advanced math classes designed to challenge these students.
"They are being intentionally left out."
House Bill 986 goes to the Senate, where Hanes said he's hopeful they'll take action on the bill this year.
Hanes and Rep. Chris Malone, a Wake Forest Republican, had originally sponsored a bill that would have required school districts to identify as academically gifted any students who scored Level 5 on state exams. They pared the bill down and had it inserted in a separate bill about requiring school districts to report how they're teaching cursive handwriting and multiplication tables.
"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.
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.
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 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.
Hanes blamed the problem on educational specialists who he said want to keep low-income students out of advanced courses. He said the bill attacks the "soft bigotry of low expectations."
Under the bill, students who score a Level 5 on state math tests would be enrolled the following school year in the advanced course for their next math class. For seventh-grade students who scored a Level 5, they'd be placed in a high school-level math course for eighth grade.
The bill says no student would be excluded from taking the advanced math course unless the child's parent or guardian provides written consent.
"It was our moral imperative to give these children an opportunity to break out of their generational cycle of poverty," Hanes said at a news conference.
"By passing this legislation and giving these low-income students the opportunity to post-secondary studies, we are providing them the means to possess the intellectual capital, the social capital and the cultural capital necessary to change their impoverished conditions."
Malone, a former Wake County school board member, pointed to how Wake saw a 44 percent increase in Algebra I placement in 2011 after it removed subjective standards for placing middle school students in the course. He noted that student achievement also went up on the tests, which he said shows "those students can thrive in more rigorous classrooms."
"It is an economic imperative to ensure that all students reach their highest potential," Malone said.
The bill doesn't include any funding, something Hanes said he and Malone would work to provide in future years. But Hanes said they're not asking schools for now to create new spaces but to make sure that the most qualified students are getting them.
"We're asking teachers ... and specialists and administrators to simply do the right thing by poor students and give these students an opportunity at advanced math classes," Hanes said.