Opinion: Daily Journal

Turning data into action to boost low-income math whizzes

It seems reasonable to expect that public school students who achieve the highest-level scores on standardized math tests ought to get the first shot at placement in advanced math classes the following year.

A measure moving through the General Assembly would turn that reasonable expectation into state law.

The story starts in May 2017. The state’s largest newspaper organization published a three-part series, “Counted Out.” It detailed a disturbing disparity in elementary school students’ access to high-level math classes.

“Between 2009 and 2015, 9,000 low-income children who scored a five on the EOG were counted out of classes that could have opened up a new academic and economic world to them as adults,” said Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forysth, recalling the newspaper report during a June 6 speech in the N.C. House. Five is the highest possible score on the state end-of-grade math test.

“They were mostly replaced by students of higher-income standing, many of whom scored four on the exam,” Hanes added. “In the 2014 school year, in Wake County, 228 low-income third-graders scored a five — superior or above grade level — on their math end-of-year grades and did not get into advanced math classes the following year. Yet 291 more affluent students scored four … and did get into advanced math classes.”

“These examples are very similar in district after district after district across our state,” Hanes said. Closer to home, Hanes pointed to his own daughter in Winston-Salem. She scored a four but won a spot in the advanced class.

“Now perhaps it happened because she’s a pretty little girl and well-behaved, and perhaps because her daddy is a state representative,” Hanes said. “But most likely it happened because her mommy and daddy could pay $1,000 for private testing, and — miraculously — my daughter is gifted in advanced math classes. And little Moesha is left on 13th Street, and Betty Lynn is left in Walkertown. It’s wrong.”

Hanes partnered with Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, on legislation designed to help right the wrong. Their measure would require enrollment in advanced-level math classes for all students scoring five on end-of-grade or end-of-course tests the prior year. For seventh-graders, this means enrollment in a high-school-level math class when they reach eighth grade.

Only written consent from a parent or guardian would keep the high-scoring students out of an advanced class.

“As a Wake County school board member, I remember,” Malone said. “I saw evidence that qualified students were not being tracked into advanced classes — depriving them of access to rigorous academic opportunities that are gateways to success in school and future career opportunities.”

Malone and his school board colleagues took action to address the problem. “In a single year, … we saw a 44 percent increase in algebra assignments and an overall increase in student achievement in the end-of-grade assessments. This validated what we believed to be true. These students could thrive in more rigorous classes.”

One House colleague complimented Hanes and Malone for their work. “I have regularly heard members of this body talk about things being research-based and data-based,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke. “Frequently, we don’t have the data provided to us to really back that up. Usually, after we’ve enacted legislation, we don’t really follow it up.”

“This particular legislation has got lots of really good data that back it up,” Blackwell added. “Not that we are simply providing access to populations of students who are underrepresented. But those students, when given an opportunity, succeed. That’s the shame of what has been going on, and it’s the great thing about what this legislation proposes to do.”

“We’re going to stop underestimating what our students can do,” Blackwell said.

For Hanes, the potential benefits are clear. “North Carolina was featured in a recent Harvard study ranking our four largest population centers as near the bottom of the country in economic mobility,” he explained. “That is a measure of how difficult it is for our children from low-income households to climb up out of poverty.”

“It seems that our schools, over the last several years, have perhaps been playing an unwitting role in this phenomenon,” Hanes added. “This legislation … understands that bright young people need ladders rather than nets. This legislation provides such a ladder.”

The House endorsed the proposed math placement requirement, 114-0. It needs approval from the Senate to become law.

Basing public policy on research and data makes sense. That’s why John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood has compiled a database of roughly 1,000 peer-reviewed academic studies since 1990. Those studies of the impact of state-level policies generally support the General Assembly’s recent actions to promote economic growth.

It seems reasonable to expect that senators who like research- and data-based legislation would give the math placement measure a fair hearing.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.