A Wake County Public Schools program that allows hundreds of students to skip a grade in math instruction includes about 90 percent whites and Asians, twice as many males as females, and only a handful of Hispanic and African-American students.
These numbers are far out of line with these groups’ presence in the system, in which about 55 percent of students are white or Asian, a little more than half are male, and about 40 percent are African American or Hispanic.
In the three-year-old program called single-subject acceleration, a fourth grader, for example, can take fifth-grade math while remaining at grade level in other subjects. Teachers, parents, or students themselves make nominations for the program in first through seventh grades.
SSA is a small part of Wake schools’ efforts for the twenty-five thousand students
identified as academically and intellectually gifted, but it reflects a broader reality—that efforts to support gifted students, to move them a step closer to professional careers, often shortchange those from minority groups.
The importance of such programs is recounted in an April 27 post by five education scholars on the Brookings Institution website
: “Those pushed into accelerated math courses were twenty percentage points more likely to describe themselves in tenth grade as intending to enroll in a four-year college, even after many had already left the accelerated track.”
The first two years of program data were presented to the Wake County Board of Education on May 8. Board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler describes what she saw as shocking. “It was startling to see the numbers,” she says. “The questions I would ask are, ‘Are you making the access to all the students so that they can understand it?’ and ‘Do we also have a safety net so that we don’t see them slipping through the cracks?’”
The situation of students of color who find themselves in a distinct minority—or even overrepresented—in high-level classes arose during a presentation at a recent school board meeting by Enloe High School students performing excerpts from the student-written play We the People.
“It’s not appropriate to be black in [advanced-placement classes],” says Enloe junior and actor Mya Ison. Ison doesn’t take part in the skip-ahead program, but generally, she says, African-American students face difficulties in AP classes and similar settings. “There’s a fine line between what’s appropriate and what needs to be said.”
Some students feel singled out for a different reason—being stereotyped as obsessed with achievement and advancement. In the play, Enloe junior Rishi Desai talks about the presumption that all Asian students strive for top grades and eventual careers in medicine or other fields with high academic requirements.
“I’m not talking just for myself,” Desai told the INDY
after the presentation. “I’m speaking for the entire Asian community.”
The SSA program was originally designed to have a parallel English language program, but so few students passed the necessary writing test that the language track was dropped. Matthew Lenard, the WCPSS director of data strategy and analytics, says the racial and ethnic characteristics of students who qualified for the English language was similar to those in the math program, but the proportions of males and females were quite different.
“Approximately three-quarters of [English-language] nominees and qualifiers are female,” he says.
In the math program, only fifteen African American and seventeen Hispanic students—or about 5 percent of program participants—wound up in the accelerated classes. That’s the case even though the two groups make up more than 40 percent of the system’s enrollment—and no verifiable, peer-reviewed data show a lower level of inherent math aptitude among females or minority groups, Lenard points out.
The SSA program replaced a previous informal practice of moving students ahead in one subject. The program, which was piloted in 2013-14 and put in place in 2014-15 and 2015-16, calls for the “consistent, fair, and systematic use” of opportunities to accelerate learning and has "guidelines for preventing nonacademic barriers to the use of acceleration.” So why did certain groups get nominated and accepted into the program at higher rates than others?
Lenard and Brad McMillen, the school system’s assistant superintendent for data, research, and accountability, have no pat answers for the underrepresentation of females and people of color.
“We have groups that we struggle to get information to,” McMillen says. “Some people don’t have access to information at the same level.”
Females are nominated and accepted into the program at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts. But African Americans are nominated and accepted at far lower rates. Forty-nine percent of SSA participants are white, and another 41.7 percent are Asian, with both groups nominated and advanced at rates far in excess of their percentages of the overall Wake schools population.
To qualify for the math SSA, a student has to score well on the subject matter for the year he or she will enter. A fourth grader would have to succeed on the fifth-grade math test, for example.
“When you use prior achievement as your criteria, any kind of achievement gap there might be is going to be reflected,” McMillen says.
It’s been difficult to precisely assess the value of the SSA program, because the state Department of Public Instruction only allows students to be tested in subjects at grade level.
“There was no statistically different [end-of-grade test] performance between accelerated and nonaccelerated,” when tested at grade level, Lenard says. The students are tested on material from their overall grade year, even though they studied more advanced material throughout the year.
Staff members say the system is prioritizing reaching talented students who might otherwise miss out on programs like SSA.
“We have a program call Nurturing for a Bright Tomorrow,” Lenard says. “It's a partnership we had with Duke to raise the expectations of kids who are underidentified. It’s a pathway from K–3 in sixteen Wake County elementary schools.”
According to information on Nurturing for a Bright Tomorrow, it’s an offshoot of a federally funded effort designed to address a state and national problem: the “achievement gap among potential gifted students at a foundational period.”
Currently, though, Johnson-Hostler says the numbers reflecting low participation among specific groups are regrettably familiar in a system where students of color are far more likely to be suspended and/or fail to graduate.
“It’s quite a bit like a lot of the things we see,” she says.