Questions raised over Algebra I in Wake middle schools

khui@newsobserver.comtgoldsmith@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2012 

  • This school year, 7,237 Wake middle school students are taking Algebra I, more than double the enrollment in 2009. A majority of eighth-graders are now taking Algebra I, compared to less than a third in 2009.

    The change was accomplished in large part by having middle schools place students using a program developed by the SAS Institute called EVAAS. Using multiple years' test data, students are recommended for placement in advanced math courses in middle school if EVAAS projects they'll have at least a 70 percent chance of passing.

    More than 80 percent of Wake's black, Hispanic and low-income students who are considered ready by EVAAS were placed in Algebra I in eighth-grade or Pre-Algebra In seventh-grade this school year.

That bane of many a high school freshman, Algebra I, is increasingly being assigned to middle schoolers in Wake County, but now board members are split over the way students are picked for the demanding class.

Board members are considering whether changes in the past few years that have sharply increased middle school Algebra I enrollment, particularly among minority and low-income students, have gone too far - or haven't gone far enough. At issue is how to determine when it's the right time for students to take Algebra I - using classroom teachers' opinions, or a SAS software package that predicts students' performance in advanced math classes?

The decision can determine whether students moving into high school will be on track to take the high-end science and math classes that many colleges and employers expect.

On Tuesday, the board will discuss whether they should pass a policy that would formalize efforts made the last two years to use the EVAAS program developed by SAS to handle placement of students in math classes. This program has increased enrollment by lessening the role that teachers and principals historically have played in placement decisions.

"Not all schools are doing the same things," board member John Tedesco said on why a policy is needed. "We're seeing many principals moving in the right direction, but we're seeing some principals and teachers and counselors who have resisted the change."

But some board members question the need for a board policy on math placement when none is in place for other subjects. They also say that what's taken place in the past few years has resulted in students being placed who aren't ready.

"Passing Algebra with a 'C' is not a recipe for success," board member Jim Martin said. "What you want is to have a solid foundation."

Algebra I historically has been considered a high school course. But in recent years, there's been a push nationally to have more students take it in middle school so that they'll be in a position to move on to more advanced courses in high school.

The former Republican majority on the board, spearheaded by Tedesco, made increasing Algebra I enrollment in middle school a priority. Schools were encouraged to place students in more advanced math classes if EVAAS indicated that students had at least a 70 percent probability of passing Algebra I by eighth-grade.

"The school system has made significant progress in getting more underrepresented students into rigorous courses," said Marvin Pittman, a retired state educator and leader in the African-American community.

The increased enrollment has caused middle schools to make adjustments the past two years. On Tuesday at West Millbrook Middle School in North Raleigh, teacher Derek Currie led an Algebra I class of 29 eighth-graders through a session on negative exponents.

An intent Currie rarely finished a sentence, almost physically drawing answers from students, sometimes in phrases, sometimes in thumbs held up, down or sideways to indicate agreement, disagreement or something in between.

"What about the negative in the exponent?" he asked. "You're getting rid of the negative exponent, by ..."

"... bringing it down," most of the class chorused.

West Millbrook Principal A.J. Muttillo emphasized that eighth-grade students aren't thrown into the middle of the complexities of Algebra I, but are followed from the sixth-grade on.

"We have a lot in place for them to be successful," he said. "It's been a shift in the past few years. We look at what you got wrong. We'll get you into an after-school math class.

"If you haven't learned by test time, you still have other opportunities to learn."

Bill Muench, a seventh-grade teacher at Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex, agreed that Wake wasn't getting enough capable students into Algebra I by eighth-grade. But based on what he's seen in his Pre-Algebra classes, he said, some students being placed now are struggling with the harder material.

"I'm not seeing that you're necessarily doing minority students a favor with these changes," Muench said.

Wake, like other school districts in North Carolina, will be switching this fall to a new "common-core" math curriculum adopted by the state. Even though the new curriculum is supposed to be more rigorous, school administrators believe they can adapt the placement criteria they've been using.

If the board agrees to have a policy, one of the questions is whether the current 70 percent probability of success is too low a measure for placing students in the more advanced middle school math courses.

Members of the new Democratic board majority have pointed to data from the last school year showing that only about half of the students placed in Algebra I with a 70 percent-to-79 percent probability of success passed the state exam.

But Wake's data also showed that the passing rate was much higher for those students when they were placed with teachers whom EVAAS evaluated as average or above average. Most of the students who failed were placed with teachers whom EVAAS rated as below average.

The board is expected also to discuss the placement criteria for a super-advanced math track that would let students take the new equivalent of Algebra I in the seventh-grade.

Tedesco argues that he'd rather give more students the chance to take the advanced courses than less.

"The students have shown they can do the work," he said. "I would rather err on the side of providing rigor and challenge to our students that on withholding them that opportunity."

Hui: 919-829-4534

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