What happened to 9,000 low-income students in North Carolina?

Effective teachers know how to challenge students academically, and do so on a regular basis. Students enjoy the academic challenge, and will rise to the level of expectation placed on them by their teachers. The benefits of students placed in academically appropriate classes can be seen later in school as they qualify for Advanced Placement classes. Students on an AP track likely move on to college, for example.

In many districts across the country, qualifying students in public schools are offered academic enrichment or gifted and talented classes. These G/T courses go above and beyond what is taught in the classroom. Students are identified  for G/T courses through a process which may include test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations.  An investigation in North Carolina recently revealed a systemic disparity in the children who were being offered opportunities for academic enrichment.

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Two newspapers in North Carolina, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer conducted a six year investigation on which students were qualifying for gifted classes based on end of year test scores. “From school years 2009-10 through 2014-15 across the state, a lower proportion of low-income students with superior scores on end-of-grade tests were placed in math classes for gifted students the following year than their classmates from higher-income families” (The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer). Specifically, 9,000 low-income students were left out of opportunities for gifted classes even though they qualified for them. Why were so many students in North Carolina being denied these opportunities?

What this investigation revealed is disturbing on so many levels- most importantly the investigation found a consistent pattern over six years (2009-2015). This was noted across rural, urban, and suburban districts across the state.

Analysis of data collected revealed:

  • In 2015, one of every three low-income students with superior math scores was labeled gifted, compared to one out of two high-scoring students whose family income was too high to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
  • In Wake County, 24 percent of low-income third graders scoring a 5 in 2014 were labeled gifted in math the following school year. The percentage for their higher-income counterparts was more than twice as high: 54 percent.
  • In 2015, Wake County filled 291 gifted slots with higher-income fourth graders who had average end-of-grade math scores. At the same time, 228 low-income children with superior scores were left out. This also occurred in several other large districts, including Durham, Guilford and Forsyth.
  • 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 one of every two low-income third graders who scored above grade level in 2010 took high school math in middle school, compared with three of four more affluent students with the same scores.
  • Even those low-income students who start high school math in middle school are far less likely to take Advanced Placement math classes in high school than classmates with similar scores but more family income (The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer).

What are the ramifications of students not taking AP classes?  Students who only take Math 1 in eighth grade in NC, fall behind their college-prep counterparts, with many teachers believing that once students fall behind, they aren’t able to catch up.  “Among low-income students who test above grade level in sixth grade but don’t take high school math by eighth grade, only one in 14 go on to take four advanced math courses in high school. For those who do start high school math by eighth grade, the numbers are better: two in five.” (The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer).

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While the investigators made recommendations based on the study results, I present a few of my own:

  1. Criteria for inclusion in G/T courses must be consistent and monitored -from within and outside the program. Administrators and curriculum supervisors may be well-suited for the task. This would ensure ALL qualifying students are given equal opportunities.
  2. Training for teachers who teach honors courses. AP teachers are required to meet certain criteria by the College Board.  Honors teachers may benefit from training to ensure they possess the tools to assist students who want to succeed, and are given every opportunity to succeed.
  3. Professional development for K-12 teachers to better understand how to meet the academic needs of all students in the classroom. Every student should be provided with academic challenges.
  4. Counseling students in and out of higher level courses- providing scaffolding and support for students placed in these courses for the first time. If a student qualifies in 6th grade for a G/T course, or 9th grade for an honors or AP course, this may be quite an academic shock as they have not performed in such a course. Facilitating their growth and success would ensure they are succeeding in these higher-level classes.

There are varying opinions on gifted and talented education. This study is not about the value of gifted and talented classes, rather it is about the equal opportunities afforded to all children.  This investigation revealed a weakness in the system in North Carolina. In response to the study, Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for academic advancement, said what the investigation revealed  was “disturbing.” “I think there is a sobering punch in the gut about what is happening here,” she said (The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer).

“Students who show promise need to be challenged,” said Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools. “Schools need to see their promise and push them into more rigorous classes early so they aren’t left behind and left out.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Ann Clark says the key is individual tracking. In high schools, for instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg now has counselors reviewing each student’s transcript every year to make sure the student is getting appropriate classes to meet his or her goals, whether that’s earning a diploma or building up advanced credits to be competitive for a top university. (The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer).

It may have been easier to understand one or two districts demonstrating such bias, but a six year study revealing state-wide systemic bias such as this is unacceptable. Regardless of how NC got here, the question is how do they get out? Perhaps a non-partisan study every year similar to the one in this investigation would ensure ALL students who qualify for gifted/talented and AP courses are offered these courses. Accountability would be a good first step.

These are my reflections for today.


Post script:  Since I started Reflections in Education in November, I have had 900 visitors with almost 1,300 views of 43 posts, and my site has been viewed in 10 different countries. That may not seem like a lot to you, but it does to me – I didn’t think anyone would read it.  So, thank you for reading, sharing and re-posting. I hope my blogs have got you thinking, talking, reading more, and reflecting. I will keep writing if you keep reading. I appreciate your support. Thank you.




Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

One thought on “What happened to 9,000 low-income students in North Carolina?”

  1. I will keep reading. Thank you. This currant blog has really got me wondering. I thought advance placement was a given. Now the deeper ramifications of achieving or not achieving this have made me understand even more how grammar school affects future lives. I really had no clue as to the significance of placement. Am laughing at myself for using the words grammar school, am sure there is a more modern term. Worried now for an acquired grand child age 13 and her future potential.


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