New push for NC program for gifted students

Only a few students in North Carolina’s largest school systems have taken advantage of a new state policy that allows them to receive high school credit for courses by mastering subject matter without sitting in classrooms.

Now some Triangle leaders are trying to spread the word about the program more broadly.

The program, similar to others used in more than 20 states, was started to allow gifted students to skip courses on material they’ve already mastered. This way students can get quicker access into more challenging courses and/or potentially graduate earlier. Wake and Durham county school system leaders are holding events and making renewed efforts to get students involved, in an application process that runs through the middle of December.

Only 13 students in the Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth school systems – accounting for 28 percent of the state’s enrollment – successfully completed the Credit By Demonstrated Mastery (CDM) process last school year. The program lets middle- and high-school students who pass a two-phase testing process get credit in as many as 159 standard-level high school courses without having to enroll in those classes.

Statewide figures from last school year haven’t been compiled yet. While masses of students weren’t expected to use the program, Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of gifted education and advanced programs for the state Department of Public Instruction, said she was surprised at the low participation in the largest districts.

While not speaking about specific districts, Shah-Coltrane said it’s been hard getting some communities and teaching staffs to encourage use of the program.

“One of the largest barriers of this program is the perception that this is something that is not needed or would not benefit children,” Shah-Coltrane said.

Some Wake school board members previously charged that the program devalued teachers by saying students didn’t need to attend classes to receive credit. Board members also complained the state isn’t providing any additional money to administer the program, which was rolled out statewide last school year.

Wake school officials say they are marketing the program, including holding four information sessions in advance of the Dec. 16 application deadline. The next session is Nov. 30 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Knightdale High School.

“We ultimately provide the information and the opportunity, and we leave it up to parents and students to decide if this is an opportunity that meets their needs,” Drew Cook, Wake’s senior director of high school programs, said in an interview.

Moving up the ladder

In a first phase, students who want the credit must take an exam for that course. Students who do well enough to move to the second phase are evaluated to see if they can apply the material.

Cook said phase two might see students do a lab exercise for a science credit, write an on-demand essay for the civics and economics credit or take a Microsoft certification exam for the Microsoft Excel/Access course.

For the 2014-15 school year, Cook told Wake County school board members this month that 111 requests were submitted for 34 courses. Some students opted not to be tested. Of the 70 phase-one tests given, only 12 students passed. Nine did well enough in phase two to receive a course credit.

Cook said Wake’s results were comparable to the state’s other large districts.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, school officials said no requests were received last year. Guilford County school officials said 34 students took the testing last year and four received credit. Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools delayed the program until this school year.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg, I think, was very upfront with us in our conversation today,” Cook told board members. “This is not something they promote.”

Cook offered reasons why the response might have been so low. He said school officials “could feel the air go out the room a little bit” when families were told that the credit wouldn’t be counted toward the grade-point average.

Cook also cited existing programs to get access to advanced courses, such as the N.C. Virtual Public School, which allows 176 Wake middle-school students to take high-school courses online.

“We’ve got other opportunities for students that other small school districts aren’t able to provide,” Cook told the board.

Shah-Coltrane of DPI said mid-sized and smaller districts are providing multiple opportunities for students to participate in the Credit By Demonstrated Mastery program.

Durham Public Schools had as many students as Wake receive credit last year while being a fifth of the size. Johnston County, which is half the size of Guilford County, had as many students last year who received credit.

Another try

Wake is making several changes to the program this year.

Wake is reducing the number of courses available. The program will only include classes with state end-of-course exams, career-and-technical education post-assessments and classes where there is no Advanced Placement equivalent. When students request credit in courses with no state exam, districts must develop their own tests.

Wake is also limiting students to three requests this school year. Cook said that students who made multiple requests last year were less likely to pass. He also said each test taken reduces the amount of time students spend in class.

“We felt that it was a reasonable balance between providing opportunities and also making realistic preparations,” Cook told the board.

At the state level, Shah-Coltrane said a working group will reconvene to review how the program has been working. She said the program will take time building acceptance across the state.

“There are a lot of improvements to be made,” Shah-Coltrane said. “Changing the mindset of schooling is not something that happens overnight.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Learn about Credit By Demonstrated Mastery

Wake County will hold an information session 6-7:30 p.m. on Nov. 30 at Knightdale High. Parents can also go to to learn more about the application process, which runs through Dec. 16.

Durham Public Schools will hold sessions 6-7 p.m. on Dec. 1 and 9 at the district’s Staff Development Center, 2107 Hillandale Road. The application period is Dec. 1-15.