Increasing Access to Advanced Math Coursework in North Carolina

Research finds that students who enroll in and complete advanced math courses are more likely to be ready for post-secondary education than students who don’t. That’s why when the News & Observer uncovered that thousands of high-achieving students across North Carolina were being denied access to advanced math courses, BEST NC began advocating for an automatic placement policy for advanced math. State policy, which was passed in 2018 and updated in 2019, now guarantees all students who score at the highest level on the math End-of-Grade test in grades 3 through 8 will be have access to advanced learning opportunities or advanced math courses the following year. More details on this nation-leading policy below.

Automatic Enrollment in Advanced Courses:
A Bipartisan Approach to Excellence and Equity in K-12 Schools

Access and enrollment in advanced coursework is linked to long-term positive outcomes for students, including greater readiness for postsecondary education. Automatic enrollment policies are a powerful lever to ensure that all qualified students have access to the advanced courses they deserve.

In a new report, Dr. Jonathan Plucker from John Hopkins University and BEST NC President & CEO Brenda Berg examine the impact of North Carolina’s nation-leading automatic enrollment policy for math and make recommendations to how to strengthen and expand the state’s policy so that more students have access to a greater number of advanced courses.

Published by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Institute for Education Policy.

Advanced Math:
A Gateway to Long-Term Success

Similar to reading on-grade-level in 3rd grade, completing an advanced math course by 8th grade is strongly correlated with long-term student success such as enrolling and completing college.  In fact, research finds that students who complete a high school level math course in 8th grade are significantly more likely to be prepared for post-secondary education and to have post-secondary success than similarly scoring peers who do not take high school level math in 8th grade. Conversely, students who do not complete a high school level math in 8th grade are less likely to graduate from high school and matriculate into post-secondary education.

Research also finds that a more challenging course of study actually leads to more long-term success for students, contrary to rhetoric suggesting students may not be “up for” the challenge. A 2006 study tracked the academic performance of students with similar math abilities and found that student who were placed in more difficult math courses in middle school were much more likely to successfully complete college-prep level math courses in high school than their peers.

Automatic Enrollment: House Bill 986

Failing to place highly-qualified students into advanced math courses forces them into a less-rigorous academic track, creating a ripple effect that limits their lifelong academic potential. In 2017, The News & Observer explored why low-income children are often left out of advanced math and other gifted classes (see video). In 2018, in response to the findings in the News & Observer’s “Counted-Out” series, BEST NC advocated for the passage of House Bill 986.

Watch "Counted-Out"

The policy, which enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship, passed unanimously in both legislative chambers, and was signed by the governor requires that all students who score a level five (the highest level) on their EOG tests in math be automatically placed in an advanced math class the following year. By basing placement on an objective measure like test scores, instead of relying solely on teacher recommendations, this policy ensures that all high-achieving students receive access to rigorous coursework regardless of their demographic background.

In just one short year, the policy has had a tremendous impact on access to advanced math in North Carolina. During the 2018-19 school year, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) estimates that more than 8,000 talented students were given access to advanced math courses that they would otherwise not had access. In 8th grade alone, 2,100 students were “placed up” into Math I (typically taken in 9th grade) during the summer of 2018 after having been originally placed in regular or even remedial 8th grade math. With the placement of those 2,100 students, the percentage of students who scored a 5 but were not placed in Math I dropped from 10% to just 3%.

Strengthening Policy Implementation: Senate Bill 500

In 2019, BEST NC advocated for Senate Bill 500, which updated the original policy by:

  • Clarifying that advanced learning opportunities, similar to those provided for academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) students, should be provided in grades 3 through 5, where advanced math courses are traditionally not offered;
  • Directing districts who did not provide high school level math for high-achieving 8th grade students during the 2018-19 school year to develop a plan to begin offer those opportunities;
  • Creating an annual report on policy implementation, including capturing how the demographic makeup of advanced math course enrollment is altered by the policy; and
  • Directing NC DPI to provide guidance to districts on implementation.


The policy was passed by the General Assembly unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Cooper on July 11, 2019.

Lessons Learned:
Recent Successes and Remaining Challenges

In recent years, we continue to see improved access to advanced math coursework.  In 2023-24 in North Carolina 94% of students in grades 6 and above who scored at the highest level on their prior year’s exam were placed in an advanced math course, up from 91% in 2021-22.

The total number of eligible students has also risen from 29,079 students in 2021-22 to 58,186 students in 2023-24, meaning that both the pool is larger and the percentage having access is also larger.

While overall placement rates and increases in the number of students eligible are encouraging signs that North Carolina’s automatic enrollment policy is working , there are disparities in placement rates across race and ethnicity, grade levels, and school districts.

American Indian, Black, and Hispanic students are placed into advanced math courses at lower rates than their White and Asian peers (see graph to the left).

Placement in advanced math also varies by grade, with 6th and 12th grade placements rates lower than those for 7th through 11th grades (see graph below).

Placement rates also vary across North Carolina’s school districts, ranging from 33% in Columbus County to 100% in 18 districts (see heat map above). 

Looking Ahead:
Next Steps for North Carolina

Expand Beyond Math. Expand this automatic enrollment policy to include provisions pertaining to advanced coursework in Reading/English Language Arts. 

Standardize the Opt-Out Form. Establish a standard opt-out form that makes it clear to parents that their child is qualified for their course placement, that there is every indication that they will be successful, and that advanced coursework is important for career and college readiness. 

Increase Access for a Greater Number of Qualified Students. Consider an expanded list of objective qualifiers, in addition to a nominal score of five. An example would be student performance history, which can be used to identify students who scored just below the cut score but have qualified in the past. This could expand eligibility to a broader set of qualified students.  

Identify Needed Supports. Ensure that state and local education agencies identify and address resource needs for full implementation. Examples include recruitment strategies to fill critical math teaching position vacancies, course curriculum and professional development for teachers, partnerships between middle schools and high schools to support Math I for eighth graders, and technology to support virtual instruction options for schools with limited enrollment or geographic challenges.

Additional Resources