The North Carolina General Assembly has a complicated relationship with public education, to say the least. On the one hand, the legislature has continued to raise teacher pay each year. On the other hand, last month teachers across the state protested for more resources for their classrooms and students, criticizing insufficient funding by the General Assembly.
This time, the General Assembly is in the news for a more positive reason: Legislators are working on passing modifications to a 2018 law that addressed a disparity between academic opportunities offered to low and high-income students. That law, which passed with overwhelming support, required all public schools to place students who test above their grade level on state tests into advanced classes.
One could be forgiven for thinking that’s the way things already work, but in fact many counties, including Wake, rely on separate aptitude tests to determine which students are placed into academically gifted programs or advanced classes. According to an in-depth story by The News & Observer, this has led to systemic underrepresentation of high-scoring, low-income students in advanced classes.
According to the piece, Wake county officials defend their use of tests other than annual End-Of Grade (EOG) exams because EOGs measure achievement, while their qualifying tests measure aptitude. However, this distinction is not really significant, according to both the author of the most commonly used aptitude test and an official with the Duke Talent Identification Program, as the two scores tend to overlap more than they diverge.
This law is a good first step toward addressing one of the many factors that disadvantage low-income students throughout the educational process. The identification of gifted students early on, ideally in elementary school, is crucial to starting them on the path to higher education, especially in math.
Students who don’t take advanced math early could be ill-prepared to start high school-level Math I during middle school. Then, once they reach high school, it can be impossible for them to get to AP Calculus or AP science classes that boost their chances of getting into high-quality colleges. As someone who benefited from being a high-income student in AP programs, I can attest to how helpful these were for me in setting me on the track to attending NC State.
NC State, like many colleges, suffers from low enrollment by low-income, rural and minority students. But in order for the university to attract more well-qualified, disadvantaged students, public schools need to do a better job putting these students on the college track from the get-go. The new legislation being considered in the GA could especially benefit students outside the Triangle. It charges approximately 100 schools that don’t offer advanced classes to identify what resources they need in order to offer them, which would enable the state to better meet those needs.
It must be said that this legislation will not resolve all of the disparities between students of different economic backgrounds. Low-income students still lack a lot of resources and preparation that high-income parents can afford to provide outside of the classroom. But as a first step, this legislation demonstrates promise in working across party lines to deliver a better education for all North Carolina students, and it will hopefully lead toward NC State’s future classes being a lot more diverse and well-rounded than they are today.