Wake school board faces math debate

khui@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2011 

  • For years, many black and Hispanic middle school students in Wake County were shut out of Algebra I -- the advanced math class that would put them on track for top-flight colleges.

    The Republican school board majority that took office in December 2009 made increasing middle school enrollment in Algebra I one of its major issues.

    Starting in 2010-11, 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.

    Figures show that 89.6 percent of the eighth-graders who were predicted to be ready for Algebra I were enrolled in the course for the school year that began this fall. That's an increase from 61.1 percent last school year.

    In addition to those efforts, school board vice chairman John Tedesco has been pushing for a board policy that would set the expectation that all qualified middle school students would be placed in Algebra I and other advanced math classes.

One of the last actions of the Republican majority on the Wake County school board could put it on a collision course with the new Democratic majority on the best way to provide math to middle school students.

School board chairman Ron Margiotta and vice chairman John Tedesco have scheduled a final vote today on a math-placement policy that they say will increase opportunities for students, particularly from minority and low-income backgrounds, to take rigorous math courses.

They say they want to put into board policy the practices that have led to sharply higher enrollment in advanced math courses over the past two years.

But Democratic board members say the new policy will result in the placement of some students who aren't ready for these tougher courses. Both board member Kevin Hill and newly elected member Jim Martin say it would be a good idea to delay the vote until after the new board takes office Dec. 6.

"It wouldn't hurt to delay such a substantive decision to Dec. 6," said Hill. "It's only a few weeks away."

Tedesco, who has spent the past two years championing adoption of new math-placement standards, said the current majority will continue to implement the policies it feels are in the best interests of the school system.

"If they don't like the policy, they're free to make changes in a few weeks," Tedesco said of the new board majority.

Tedesco said the policy might be removed from today's agenda if staff members say there are too many questions about how the policy would be impacted by new national math curriculum standards that North Carolina has chosen to follow.

Algebra in middle school

Since 2009, the GOP majority on the board has made increasing access to Algebra I in middle school one of its major initiatives.

The Republicans argue that they've done more to get minority students enrolled in Algebra I in middle school than prior boards.

But Democrats have charged that Republicans care more about increasing numbers in the classes than on making sure the students learn the material.

Republican board members have pointed to a 2009 report by the SAS Institute.

That report showed that previous guidelines relied more on teacher judgment than on test scores, and resulted in more than half of qualified black and Hispanic middle-school students in Wake not being put in advanced math courses.

Starting in 2010-11, 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 enrollment in Algebra I in middle school has nearly doubled in the past two years.

Tedesco and Superintendent Tony Tata say that the students identified by EVAAS as ready for Algebra I in middle school should be given that opportunity. It will allow them to take higher-level courses in high school and increase success in college.

Tata reiterated his support of the new policy at a news conference Friday, saying it's "giving every child an opportunity to succeed in math."

"The goal is to make sure that we are placing as many students that demonstrate potential in Algebra I and in math in the right math courses so that we are not having any kind of subjective bias in the system," Tata said.

EVAAS ratings at issue

Under the new policy, students who are projected by EVAAS to have a 70 percent chance or greater of success would be placed in advanced math courses in middle school.

The policy would also prohibit teachers from using their judgment to exclude students who've been deemed ready by EVAAS.

In the first vote in September, all five Republicans voted yes; all four Democrats voted no. Democrats have cited state exam statistics - among those students placed in Algebra I with a 70-79 percent probability of success, just over a half passed the state exam last school year.

Hill said he agreed that Wake previously has held back some students who should have been allowed to take Algebra I in middle school. But he said the new policy should have a higher EVAAS rating cutoff for the advanced track.

"I've talked with a number of middle-school principals and math educators who feel that having 70 percent as a floor isn't acceptable," Hill said.

Martin said the school system shouldn't be placing students into Algebra I unless they can get an "A" grade or high "B" grade. He said placing middle-school students in Algebra I when they'll barely pass or will fail will hurt them in high school.

"I'm much less concerned about when a student takes a course than for them to have mastery of that course," Martin said.

Tedesco said he'll propose a compromise in which parents of students who have a 70 percent to 74 percent probability of success would meet with teachers and counselors before the placement decision. But the final decision should still rest with the parent, he said. Tedesco said he wouldn't support using a higher EVAAS percentage than 70 percent.

"If they want to take away opportunities from students to succeed, they can choose to do so," Tedesco said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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