States should use test scores to increase student enrollment in advanced math

States should use test scores to increase student enrollment in advanced math

By: Chad Aldeman and Dale Chu

Of the many ways poor and minority students are often given short shrift by schools, none may be more insidious than being automatically subjugated to remedial level work when they could be enrolled in advanced courses. Six states have endeavored to tackle this problem head on by enacting “automatic enrollment” laws: Washington, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Texas. Also referred to as “opt-out” or “acceleration” policies, the details can vary, but the shared objective is to minimize bias by defaulting students into more rigorous courses if they meet a specific threshold on state exams.

Although it wasn’t the first out of the gate, North Carolina broke new ground on the policy innovation in 2018, when the state’s legislative assembly made automatic enrollment in advanced math a requirement. To wit, the state’s law has two key facets. First, it says, “When practicable, local boards of education shall offer advanced courses in mathematics in all grades three and higher.” Second, “When advanced courses are offered in mathematics, any student scoring a level five on the end-of-grade or end-of-course test for the mathematics course in which the student was most recently enrolled shall be enrolled in the advanced course for the next mathematics course in which the student is enrolled.” The upshot being that advanced courses should be offered, and districts must use the state test to identify high-achieving students who could benefit from them.

A recent op-ed in The 74 notes that North Carolina’s law is succeeding: More high-achieving students are taking advanced math courses. There is still work to be done to address lingering racial gaps, but fewer high-performing students are being slotted into lower-level courses that shortchange their ability.

The latest encouraging entry into the automatic enrollment trend is Texas. The state’s new law, signed in May, takes similar aim but goes even further. It requires school districts to create middle school advanced math programs and then offer seats to any student who scores in the top 40% of the state’s 5th grade math assessment. The new policy will likely increase the number of students ready to enroll in algebra in the eighth grade—often seen as a gateway to higher math courses and STEM fields—especially Black and Hispanic students who have historically been shut out of advanced math courses. By the time they get to high school, this should mean more Black and Hispanic students in calculus and statistics.

But Lone Star students won’t even need to wait that long. Early reporting suggests the new law is already having a positive effect. The Associated Press highlighted an immigrant from Myanmar who didn’t even know honors courses existed. He didn’t have to rely on his parents or teachers to nominate him—processes which can be heavily skewed in favor of white and upper-income families. This young man’s test scores demonstrated that he could be successful in advanced math, so he was automatically enrolled in the honors-level course.

To be sure, there’s a balance between access and ability to benefit. Students are unlikely to succeed if they’re assigned to courses far above their ability level. Indeed, some states have sought to eliminate advanced math courses for this very reason, advocating instead for “heterogeneous grouping” and turning a blind eye to student aptitude altogether. But using state test scores to make automatic enrollment decisions is a promising strategy precisely because they accurately measure student abilities. When paired with training for teachers and additional support, Black and Hispanic students in particular stand to reap an outsized benefit. Instead of blocking them from advanced math, states would do well to consider adopting enrollment policies that automatically open the door for students who demonstrate the potential to succeed.

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