Wake’s math placement policy raises concerns

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2012 

Wake County’s new middle school math placement policy could either help more students reach their academic potential or result in overwhelmed students taking advanced courses that are watered down to accommodate them.

Supporters and opponents of the new policy that passed this week have sharply divergent views of what will happen now that it’s the school system’s official goal to increase placement of students into more rigorous math courses in middle school.

The new policy, along with accompanying placement criteria, would use a SAS computer program instead of a teacher’s judgment as the basis for determining where middle school students are placed in math. The policy is expected to continue the efforts backed over the past two years by the former-Republican board majority that have sharply increased enrollment in upper-level math courses.

“Kids are better served when they’re challenged,” Republican school board member Chris Malone said on Wednesday. “There are a lot of kids who are prepared, whether people want to admit it or not, who we didn’t give a chance before.”

But Democratic school board member Jim Martin warns that the new policy means students will be pushed into courses that they’re not ready to take.

“This pushing everybody in with what I’m going to call an at-risk level of math performance into the higher level just makes no sense pedagogically,” Martin said.

Algebra I has typically been a high school course. But there has 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.

Over the past two years, middle schools were encouraged to place students in more advanced math classes if the EVAAS program from SAS indicated that students had at least a 70 percent probability of passing Algebra I by eighth grade.

Algebra I enrollment has more than doubled since 2010, growing from 3,322 to 7,237 this year. Some of the biggest gains have come from enrollment of more black, Hispanic and low-income students.

“In all segments of society, biases and stereotypes exist,” Democratic school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said. “This is what the policy is trying to get at. What we’re trying to do is guard against those biases becoming part of placement decisions.”

Even though the state is switching to a new math curriculum this fall, Wake school administrators say they can still use EVAAS to help place students.

Is 70 percent too low?

Initially, Democratic board members resisted efforts to adopt a policy that would formalize the placement practices. The main complaint has been that a 70 percent probability of success has been too low a standard.

“I can tell you from the classroom perspective, you teach that wide of a spectrum, you’re either dumbing it down for the kids at the top or you’re completely overwhelming the kids at the bottom,” said Martin, a professor at N.C. State University.

Ruth Steidinger, Wake’s senior director of middle school programs, said that they’ve been training middle school math teachers how to work with students with different ability levels.

Policy modified

After administrators proposed changes to the policy and the placement criteria, Sutton and fellow Democrat Christine Kushner joined with the Republicans on Tuesday to pass the policy.

The policy was revised to say that teachers can recommend placing students in lower-level math courses than indicated by the data. The principal would make the final call.

The placement criteria was revised to say that the school administration must meet with families of students with probability scores of 70 percent to 79 percent to tell them that support options such as tutoring are available. Other revisions say that students aren’t allowed to skip courses and that principals will “ensure that all students have equal access to quality teaching.”

But one area that school administrators refused to back away from was using 70 percent as the floor for placement.

“We believe that casting a wider net is more important,” Steidinger said. “It helps to fix some of the issues that we had previously about not capturing all students who have potential.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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