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Schools telling elementary students that new middle school math is too hard for them

Bright elementary school students across the Triangle will be blocked from taking middle-school math courses this fall because school officials say the material is too hard for them.

As part of a national movement to standardize math instruction, North Carolina is putting into effect a new curriculum for the 2012-13 school year that’s supposed to be more rigorous. The result is that most Triangle school districts, including Wake County, will no longer allow high-level elementary school students to take middle-school math.

The suspension, which could affect hundreds of Wake County students, had led Karissa Webb’s parents to file a grievance against the school system. Central office administrators rejected a plan developed by Karissa’s teachers to have the rising fifth-grader at West Lake Elementary School near Apex take sixth-grade math this fall at the adjoining West Lake Middle School.

“She’s so upset at this point and wondering why someone else decided she’s not ready,” said Carman Webb, Karissa’s mother.

But school officials and a consultant who helped draft the new math curriculum say there are good reasons not to push students too quickly as districts transition into the new standards.

North Carolina is one of 45 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the “common core standards” in mathematics and language arts. The standards were developed by a national consortium and then tailored by each state for use.

“This is a major challenge for the country to have internationally benchmarked math standards, and we know the middle school grades will be the hardest challenge,” said Jere Confrey, an N.C. State University professor who helped the state develop its math standards.

The Triangle High 5, composed of the Wake, Durham, Johnston, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems, developed a sequence for math courses which doesn’t recommend having elementary school students take middle-school math. Most Triangle school districts say the new fifth-grade math curriculum is rigorous enough that it will meet the needs of students. If needed, elementary school teachers will introduce some sixth-grade math concepts to academically gifted fifth-graders.

“We will able to do acceleration within that curriculum,” said Michael Gilbert, a spokesman for Orange County Schools.

A ‘need to be challenged’

The one member of Triangle High 5 not following the group’s recommendation for elementary school students is Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which kept its LEAP Program. Covering grades 4-8, LEAP students take courses two to three years ahead of their normal grade.

Emily Martine, president of the Chapel Hill chapter of Partners for the Advancement of Gifted Education, said parents were relieved by Chapel HIll’s decision.

“They recognized that all students need to be challenged,” she said.

But Wake school officials say letting elementary school students take middle school math could result in their skipping material that will now be taught in elementary school.

“We want to make sure students aren’t skipping content,” said Ruth Steidinger, Wake’s senior director for middle school programs.

Steidinger said elementary schools have been developing new material for students identified as academically and intellectually gifted. She also noted that the rising fifth-graders will be able to take accelerated math instruction when they enroll in middle school.

Wake’s decision means eliminating a course, which served 800 fifth-graders this year, that allowed students to take both fifth- and sixth-grade math. It also ends the practice in which some elementary school students went to a middle school for math.

One family’s concerns

Leaders of the Wake County chapter of PAGE say they’ve been fielding questions from parents of gifted students worried about how the changes might affect them.

The change came as a surprise to Karissa Webb’s parents. Since kindergarten, her teachers have placed Karissa in a math class with students one grade older than her. Karissa, 10, was told by Wake this month that she’ll have to retake fifth-grade math this fall instead of going on to sixth-grade math.

School officials say that the new fifth-grade math curriculum will be very different from what Karissa, a fourth-grader, is now taking. But Carman Webb disagrees.

“We’re not going to let her repeat a class just because it’s more convenient for them,” Carman Webb said.

If Karissa’s grievance is rejected by staff, the family can appeal to the school board. They’ve got at least one ally in school board member Jim Martin, who says the district shouldn’t be following a “one size fits all” plan for educating students.

“We need to keep challenging our top students,” Martin said.

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