Determining which math class Wake County middle school students should attend has not been an easy decision. Placement decisions in sixth grade will largely determine which math courses students take through high school.
But school administrators think they’ve come up with new placement guidelines for this fall that will meet the needs of 35,000 middle school students, particularly those students who want to take advanced courses.
“We have no intention of the criteria keeping students from getting in,” Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for school performance, told school board members last week. “We want to continue to open the door for as many students who have the capacity or interest or perseverance that we’re able to support.”
The new criteria come at a crucial time for the school system for two reasons:
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• Parents of gifted students have complained that their children aren’t getting challenging enough math classes in middle school.
• There is debate over whether Wake has gone from not placing enough middle school students in advanced math classes to now assigning too many who aren’t ready.
Algebra I used to be a course that most Wake County students didn’t take until high school. 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 school board majority made increasing Algebra I enrollment in middle school a priority, citing data from the software company SAS showing that black and Hispanic eighth-grade students who were ready for the material were being placed in the class at much lower rates than their white and Asian peers.
For the past few years, placement decisions have been based largely on whether students had at least a 70 percent probability of passing Algebra I, according to an SAS program that looks at individual students’ previous test scores. Some Democratic board members questioned whether the probability of passing should be higher than 70 percent.
Common Core used
Wake’s new middle school guidelines will still use 70 percent as the benchmark, although it now is based on the probability of passing the more rigorous Math I that’s included in the new curriculum, which is based on the Common Core standards used by 45 states. Brian Pittman, Wake’s senior director of middle school programs, said the system will need to continue providing resources for students who need support while taking the harder math classes.
For the most part, board members didn’t object to still using 70 percent at a committee meeting last week.
Two-thirds of Wake’s eighth-grade students are taking Common Core Math I this school year.
School board vice chairman Tom Benton said Monday there’s not enough data yet to raise the threshold. But the former middle school principal said he’s worried that some eighth-grade students who are being placed in Common Core Math I would be better off waiting another year.
“The one thing I hated to see was destroying the confidence of an eighth-grade child (who was) taking Algebra I and then struggling,” he said.
But Shila Nordone, a North Raleigh parent, said that most students who’ve been given the chance have shown they can handle the material. She said the new guidelines will continue efforts to address the equity issues of the past.
“They’re making objective data-driven decisions now,” Nordone said. “We’re cautiously optimistic they’re moving in the right direction.”
Pittman said school officials expect to have about the same pool of students taking advanced courses. He said that there might be an initial drop because fewer students are passing the new state exams based on the Common Core.
But Pittman said that officials expect that over time, more students will pass the exams, which would raise their probability in the SAS program.
Pittman also said the system will work with elementary schools to identify students, such as those in underrepresented groups, to help prepare them to take advanced courses in middle school.
For gifted students
The new guidelines could also address a complaint from the parents of some of Wake’s brightest students.
Wake is restoring a “compacted math” program that will allow students to complete two years of high school math in middle school.
The school system had discontinued the program because administrators said that Common Core was so rigorous they didn’t feel a compacted math option was needed.
But starting this fall, students who have a probability of 97 percent as determined by the SAS program, and who scored a Level IV on their most recent state end-of-grade math test, can take the new Compacted Math 6 Plus/7 Plus class. Those students, estimated to be about 3 percent of the sixth-grade class, will take 2.5 years of math in one year.
Those students will be able to take Common Core Math I in seventh grade and Common Core Math II in eighth grade – a course that many students around the state won’t take until their sophomore year.
Pittman said the school system will make sure the new class is available to students at all middle schools. If a school doesn’t have enough students to schedule its own class, options include participating via distance learning with students at a school that has a class.
“We don’t want scheduling difficulties to be a barrier to the students,” said Todd Wirt, Wake’s assistant superintendent for academics.
The new class was applauded by Aditi Majumdar, an Apex parent who formed a group last year objecting to the elimination of compacted math.
“I’m impressed with what they’ve done,” she said. “They realize that the nonmagnet schools must get these options, too.”