Wake board addresses teacher role in algebra enrollment

School leaders fear that academically qualified minority and low-income students are left out.

Staff WriterAugust 13, 2011 

— Enrollment in middle school Algebra I classes isn't growing fast enough for some Wake County school leaders, who are concerned that teachers are excluding too many academically qualified minority and low-income students.

Administrators are developing a policy for the school board's approval that would prevent teachers from using their judgment to keep middle school students out of Algebra I classes. The policy would require schools to place students in Algebra I if a computer program determines that they're academically ready.

"It's my expectation and our board's expectation that every student who is projected ... to be successful in Algebra I to be placed in Algebra I," Superintendent TonyTata said at a news conference Friday.

School board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said the fact that teachers keep hundreds of students out of Algebra I even when they're ready for it shows that a board policy is needed. Tedesco thinks that the former county policy of busing students for socioeconomic diversity has caused some teachers to set lower expectations for poor and minority students.

"We should not let personal biases and institutional biases hold a kid back," said Tedesco, an outspoken proponent for increasing Algebra I enrollment. "We're talking about the futures of thousands of kids here."

Tama Bouncer, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, which represents 5,000 teachers and other school employees, said she's concerned that teachers will be held accountable for the performance of students whom the teachers have valid concerns about taking Algebra I.

The Republican school board majority that took office in December 2009 has made increasing middle school enrollment in Algebra I one of its major issues. Board members have repeatedly cited a report done in 2009 by the SAS Institute in Cary. The study showed that the majority of black and Hispanic students projected to be ready to take Algebra I in middle school were not being placed in the course.

Taking Algebra I in middle school improves a student's chances to take more advanced math classes in high school and be ready to go to college.

EVAAS reckoning

Tata said middle school enrollment in Algebra I has risen from 3,000 students in 2009-2010 to 4,500 students this past school year. He said that enrollment is projected to reach 6,000 students this fall.

Starting in 2010-2011, Wake began making math placement decisions using the Education Value-Added Assessment System developed by SAS. EVAAS uses a student's past test scores to determine the probability of having success in a subject.

Wake's guidelines said students projected by EVAAS to have a 70 percent probability of success in Algebra I should be placed in the class. The guidelines say teachers can decide to place a student in Algebra I who EVAAS indicates might not be ready.

But school officials found that 28 percent of students whom EVAAS deemed ready to take Algebra I this past school year were still being kept out, with teacher judgment being a major reason.

Frustration over the uneven implementation of the new math guidelines caused Tedesco to ask for the new board policy. He said academically ready students should be kept out of Algebra I only if their parents requested that they be placed in a lower-level course.

"When a child is capable and gifted enough to take the more rigorous class, they should be placed in the class and not be subject to institutional biases," Tedesco said.

Passing rates stable

Despite the surge in enrollment, Tata said passing rates substantially stayed the same in Algebra I. While supporting the need to restrict use of professional judgment, he also praised teachers for the Algebra I results.

"My hat is off to our math teachers and the principals in our middle schools and those in Central Services who worked to make this first year successful, and we're going to do better in upcoming years," Tata said.

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

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