Guidelines encourage minorities in math

Staff WriterAugust 31, 2010 

  • Q: Why is Algebra I important?

    A: Students must pass the state's Algebra I end-of-course exam to graduate from high school. The majority of students take Algebra I in high school, but some do it in eighth grade.

    Q: Why is it important to get more students to take it in middle school?

    A: Students who complete Algebra I in middle school have more opportunities to take advanced math courses in high school. Universities with strong academic reputations look more favorably on applicants who've taken advanced math courses such as calculus.

    Q: What was the racial disparity in Algebra I enrollment in middle schools?

    A: According to a SAS study, nearly 60 percent of Wake white eighth-graders deemed ready for Algebra I were enrolled. About 40 percent of black and Hispanic eighth-graders were enrolled. The latest data are from 2008, when the school district operated under previous guidelines for the placement of minority students.

    Q: So more black and Hispanic eighth-graders are being enrolled in Algebra I under the new guidelines. How many more, and what will this mean for class sizes?

    A. Most of the increases this year among black and Hispanic students are in pre-algebra in seventh grade. The big jump in Algebra I will be in 2011-12. Schools say they'll adjust to the additional students by offering fewer lower level math courses. Schools will also have to buy more instructional supplies for the advanced math classes.

  • Until this school year, Wake County school teachers had been trained to use Ruby Payne's book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," which has sold more than 1 million copies nationally. Used in Wake for much of the past decade, it has been hailed as a way to help middle-class teachers relate to low-income students. Teachers were taught about the "hidden rules of survival" needed for different societal classes.

    Teachers were told poor parents have skills such as locating grocery store garbage bins for thrown-away food, bailing someone out of jail, getting a gun and using a knife as scissors.

    Teachers were told middle-class parents have skills such as setting a table properly, talking to their children about going to college, helping their children with homework and getting a library card.

    Teachers were told wealthy parents have skills such as reading a menu in French, English and another language; having at least two homes that are staffed and maintained; flying in their own plane or a company plane and knowing how to enroll their children in preferred private schools.

For years, the majority of high-performing black and Hispanic middle school students in Wake County have been shut out of advanced math classes that would put them on track for top-flight colleges.

Under old selection guidelines that relied more on teacher judgment than test scores, data from the SAS Institute shows that more than half of the qualified minority middle school students were not put in those advanced math courses, statistics that confirmed the complaints of some parents of those students.

New test-driven guidelines using a SAS program - urged on staff by the school board majority that swept into office last fall - will increase minority enrollment in those courses this school year.

"Sometimes we have to help staff realize what students can do," Marvin Connelly, assistant superintendent for student support services, said about the new guidelines at a recent back-to-school forum in Southeast Raleigh.

School board member John Tedesco, a key member of the majority, blamed the low selection rate for advanced math classes in part on teacher training that he said helped perpetuate stereotypes of poor and minority students.

Until this past school year, Wake trained teachers with Ruby Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," to try to help middle-class educators relate to poor students. Teachers were told that poor people know how to look in garbage bins of grocery stores for thrown-away food while middle-class families know how to get a library card.

Tedesco said this training, along with the district's discarded diversity policy that defined poor children as being at risk of academic failure, resulted in schools and teachers focusing on students' income level and not their academic ability.

"You set a culture of low expectations for students," said Tedesco, a member of the new board majority which scrapped the policy of trying to balance schools by socioeconomic level. "You were dispersing the students around instead of meeting the individual needs of students."

But Peg Conrad, a vice president for aha! Process, the Texas-based education company founded by Payne, said the schools that use the author's methods have raised academic expectations and student achievement. Conrad said Payne's work doesn't stereotype but is based on looking at things through the lens of economic class.

"This work is based on patterns - and there are many exceptions to these patterns," Conrad wrote in a statement. "When one stays focused on the economic realities, it often indicates that these patterns arise out of economic environments and not the other way around."

What SAS analysis found

Back when teacher judgment carried more weight in advanced placement recommendations, there were notable racial and ethnic disparities in which students were included in advance math classes.

In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the SAS Institute showed that more than half of white and Asian students in Wake who were qualified to take Algebra I in eighth grade were enrolled in the course. But the placement percentage for similarly qualified black and Hispanic students was only about 40 percent.

The gap was even wider in 2006, when only 19 percent of Wake's highest scoring black male middle school students were placed in advanced math classes. Wake school administrators have been looking into the Algebra I placement issue since 2006.

North Carolina students must pass the state exam in Algebra I to graduate. But students who complete Algebra I in middle school are in a better position to take the advanced math and science courses in high school that many universities see as a desirable qualification for applicants.

Janet Johnson, the chief executive officer of EDSTAR, a Raleigh company that works with SAS, said teachers she interviewed gave reasons for student placement that had nothing to do with academics. For instance, she said, one Wake teacher told her she didn't recommend placing any Hispanic students in advanced classes because she felt it would put too much pressure on them.

Joi Dunn, an eighth-grade Algebra I teacher and math department chairwoman at North Garner Middle School, said she has heard similar reasons from teachers at other schools to justify keeping children out of advanced classes.

"It was shocking and disturbing, as a minority, to hear that people weren't being put in a class because or their race or income," said Dunn, who is African-American.

The new guidelines

For the 2010-11 school year, middle schools are now expected to place students in advanced math classes if the SAS Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) predicts they have at least a 70 percent chance of doing well. According to SAS, 96 percent of the students who've been deemed ready for Algebra I by EVAAS went on to pass the state exam.

Under the new guidelines, principals have to give compelling reasons in writing why the EVAAS data is being overridden to deny placement of any student. Teacher judgment is still a factor, but Connelly, the assistant superintendent, said it's expected to be used to recommend placing students, not to exclude them.

The new guidelines mean middle schools are offering additional classes in sixth-grade advanced math and seventh-grade pre-algebra. Several middle school principals said they're seeing 60 to 90 more students in their pre-algebra classes this year.

Effects on classes

Algebra I enrollment isn't expected to grow much until next school year because schools aren't expected to admit students who haven't taken pre-algebra.

Kim Bowling, who teaches pre-algebra at North Garner Middle, said her classes haven't been watered down to accommodate the additional students. But she said she's taking more time to make sure the students understand the concepts.

"The kids have risen to the challenge," Bowling said. "They're excited about the opportunity to be in the class."

The new guidelines were welcomed by Lalonzo Chambers, a Southeast Raleigh middle school parent.

"We need to make sure parents know about these changes," Chambers said.

The new guidelines are also being met with praise from both supporters and opponents of the old socioeconomic diversity policy as a way to make sure students' academic needs are being met.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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