Math panel skeptical of minority gains

Placement data doubted, decried

Staff WriterOctober 29, 2010 

— Reported gains in minority enrollment in Wake County middle school advanced math classes were met with skepticism Thursday by a school board task force whose members insisted that school administrators do more to get qualified students into the classes.

Wake school administrators said Thursday that 61.6 percent of black middle school students and 61.6 percent of Hispanic students who were identified as being ready to take pre-algebra or Algebra I were placed in those courses this year. Also, 58.6 percent of all economically disadvantaged middle schoolers who qualified were placed in the algebra classes this school year. However, 75.5 percent of white students who qualified were assigned to the classes.

A SAS Institute report had found a majority of qualified black and Hispanic students weren't being placed into Algebra I in middle school. That could limit their ability to take enough advanced math courses in high school to help them get into good colleges.

In response, a new SAS evaluation program was used to evaluate students for this term. It was different from the previous system, which relied heavily on teachers' recommendations. The board also appointed the panel, including board members, teachers, administrators and community residents, to look into how to help minority and low-income students.

School officials reported last month that enrollment in the math classes had significantly increased. Thursday's report looked at whether minority students were faring better in the selection process.

But instead of praising the gains, task force members expressed doubts about the accuracy of the numbers. Even if they're right, task force members said, the percentages are still far too low when compared to the placement rates for white and affluent students.

"If you're qualified and you're deemed ready to take the course, then you should be in it," said school board member John Tedesco, chairman of the task force meeting Thursday at East Garner Elementary School. "It shouldn't matter what your color is or how much your family makes."

Tedesco is among school board members elected last fall who had cited the SAS report as evidence that Wake needs to change the way it places middle school students in math courses. The members who helped form a majority on the board pushed new guidelines designed to rely more on test data and less on teachers' judgment.

Administrators reported last month that enrollment shot up 30 percent this year in pre-algebra and Algebra I classes using the SAS EVAAS program. But Tedesco and other members of the task force asked for detailed demographic data.

David Holdzkom, assistant superintendent for evaluation and research, said Thursday that 8,177 of the more than 11,300 middle school students identified as being ready by EVAAS were enrolled this year.

But task force member Janet Johnson, president of EDSTAR, which analyzes education statistics, noted that administrators had reported last month that more than 10,000 students were taking those two courses.

Holdzkom said it's possible that the higher number might include students placed in those advanced math courses who were not identified as being ready by EVAAS. Teachers were able to recommend students for the classes even if EVAAS didn't think they were ready.

Johnson and other task force members also questioned why staff had not broken down the placement numbers separately for pre-algebra and Algebra I. Administrators had previously said the overall placement rate was much higher for pre-algebra than Algebra I.

Holdzkom said he didn't know they wanted the numbers presented separately. He was asked to have that information available at the task force's December meeting.

"There's just something odd about these numbers," Johnson said after the meeting.

Johnson and Shila Nordone, a professor at N.C. State, argued that placement rates of 61.6 percent for black and Hispanic students are still unacceptably low if EVAAS indicates they're ready for the classes.

Administrators have said that students might not be placed if they hadn't taken prerequisite classes or if they hadn't passed state math exams last spring. Parents might also ask that their children not take those courses.

"It's about providing opportunity," Nordone said. "If we take children out of an opportunity because they're students with disabilities or they're African-American, we're denying them opportunity. We're denying them college."

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

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