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This is part 8 of a series that tells a story intended to help people understand the cultural context of changes happening in education.

Some people believe that low-income kids struggle to learn; others realize that many low-income kids learn as easily as the rich kids, but the former lack access to challenging courses and the rigor that would allow them to reach their full potential.   I know from seeing the actual data that there are, in North Carolina alone, tens of thousands of low-income and minority kids who score at the highest levels of standardized tests who have had no access to the most rigorous courses.  This is, in part, because of the traditional practice of classifying them as “at-risk” students who need federally funded academic support. When students are viewed as being “at risk,” educators want to provide them with the resources they believed were appropriate for them.  This included dropout prevention programs, remedial work, and recommendations for standard or remedial courses—regardless of the fact that many of these kids had already demonstrated that they were academically capable.

Data Changes People’s Understanding of What is Equitable

During this time of cross-over from “at risk” to data, school counselors began trying to use data to align services and document outcomes, have goals, etc.  We were hired to help school counselors learn to use data.  We worked with school counselors in at least 20 school districts.  We had found that when high-achieving, well-behaved kids are put in remedial courses and dropout prevention programs, they regress.  We started calling this academic or behavioral regression “damage,” because that is what it was.  Their grades went down, their scores lowered, and some even dropped out.

Many of the school districts we were working with had us pull together student data from the different silos it lives in, format it for easy use, recode with our decoder rings, and then help them look at what the data told them students needed.  Most were shocked at the number of high-achieving poor and minority kids.  They had thought these kids were “at risk,” and then logically assumed that Honors and other rigorous courses would hurt them.  Teachers would see these students were in programs or receiving services for at-risk students, and this would influence their expectations.  Everyone needs something that is right for them, and they believed remedial services and special programs are right for the at-risk kids.  These were very well-meaning people.  This made logical sense to them.

Equitable Math Placement

School counselors did not know what data to use to target kids to promote success in school.  We helped one district, then later the entire state, review years of data to see what is correlated with successfully graduating on time.  We learned, among other things, that one dropout group was low-income kids with very high academic scores who never took any rigorous courses.  Enrollment in rigorous courses was primarily done by teacher recommendation.  The head of school counseling in one large district had us help chase down how students were recommended for these rigorous courses.  It turned out kids taking 8th grade algebra were most likely to be recommended for rigorous courses in high school, even in the non-math/science subjects.  These kids were viewed as “really smart” by school counselors, deans, and teachers. We learned this from surveys and focus groups, and it matched the data.  Top-scoring students who took 8th grade algebra were 55 times more likely to take physics and chemistry in high school than top-scoring students who took algebra in 9th grade.  So, how did kids get into 8th grade algebra?  They had to be in advanced 6th grade math.  So, how did kids get into advanced 6th grade math?  They had to be recommended by their 5th grade teacher.  So, how did the 5th grade teachers decide who to recommend?  Let me just say it was not based on any academic data.  The teachers made the recommendations before they had the standardized test scores.  But somehow, the high-scoring, low-income and minority students rarely got recommended.  Many schools only had one class of 8th grade algebra.  So, they whittled down the group to only 25 or so kids in the top math track.  When asked why there would only be one class if many more students were ready for algebra, the most common answer we got was that they had always only had one class.

School Counselor Math Task Force

The head of school counseling in one district wanted to help more low-income and minority students get into the top math track, given the domino effect that had on other opportunities.  And, their data for the district showed 50 or more low-income and minority students per middle school with very strong math scores who were not recommended for advanced math.  There was no shortage of these kids.  The district had my team run a report for each middle school to show what percentage of the students who had scored the highest possible score on the math standardized tests were in the top math track, by race and gender.  It varied across schools, but in general, although there were a lot of top scoring low-income and minority students, few were recommended by teachers for the top math track.  Many of the low-income and minority students who were recommended for the standard math track had math achievement scores that were higher than the average score of students in the advanced math track in their schools. There were no academic criteria for earning your way in.  School counselors couldn’t place kids into the advanced math track.  Math teachers had to recommend them.

This district started a task force with the school counselors and math department for the district.  I was on this task force.  It met for several years, attempting to get objective academic criteria for enrolling in advanced math.  The math department staff explained to us that all students have equally rigorous courses because rigor is relative to the student, and is not an attribute of the curriculum.  They told us that although not equal, the opportunities were equitable because these at-risk students were more likely to thrive in standard courses.  Standard courses would be rigorous for them.  They also told us that scoring at the highest level repeatedly on math tests was not an indication that the student could be successful in math.  There were other things that mattered more, although they couldn’t quite articulate what those things were.  The fact that wealthy parents would get upset if too many poor or minority kids were in their kids’ classes did come up more than once.

In this culture, equity can be a dangerous concept.  Very well-meaning people think they are providing these kids with educational resources that are right for their needs when they recommend them for standard courses instead of advanced courses, and when they refer them for help from federally funded programs designed for academically at-risk kids.