Fewer Wake students passed state’s Math 1 test. But is the MVP curriculum to blame?

Fewer Wake County students are passing the state’s Math 1 exam, but there’s a debate about whether it should be blamed on the district’s controversial math curriculum.

The past year has seen complaints from some families about the MVP Math Curriculum used in Math 1 and other high school level courses.

Critics are now pointing to how Wake’s passing rate dropped in the 2018-19 school year on North Carolina’s Math I end-of-course exam. They say this shows that their concerns are justified.

“You promised critical thinking,” Blain Dillard, a Cary parent who has led the fight against MVP Math, said at the Oct. 15 school board meeting. “I call this chart critical sinking or critical stinking.”

But the school district, which has defended the curriculum, say it’s going too far to blame the change in the passing rate on MVP. They say there could be other factors, including how the state changed the Math 1 test last school year.

“We don’t know that performance has dropped,” Brad McMillen, Wake’s assistant superintendent for data, research and accountability, said in an interview. “The scores on the new test are different than scores on the earlier test.

“But whether or not kids are learning less math, the extrapolation of what that drop means is where you have to get off the boat.”

Utah-based Mathematics Vision Project referred The News & Observer’s questions about the test results to the school system.

Who takes Math 1?

Math 1 is the initial math course that many North Carolina high school students take. But 48% of the the students who take Math 1 in Wake are middle school students, usually meaning they’re high achievers.

Since the 2017-18 school year, Wake has used materials from MVP to teach high school-level math based on Common Core standards. Instead of hearing a lecture and memorizing formulas, the focus has shifted to students working in groups to solve problems, while teachers act as facilitators.

Critics say the format doesn’t teach the materials, resulting in students coming out of the class struggling to understand what they would have mastered from a more traditional math course. They say it has forced families to pay for private tutors to help their children learn the material.

The school board voted Aug. 6 to uphold a recommendation from a district review committee to continue using MVP. The district is making changes this school year that it says will improve how the classes are taught.

A company hired by Wake to review the math curriculum is asking parents to respond by Nov. 8 to an online survey.

Math 1 exam proficiency rate falls

Critics have shown up at school board meetings to lobby for MVP to be dropped. The latest state results have helped fuel their complaints.

In the 2017-18 school year, the state reported Wake’s Math 1 exam passing rate at 65%. But for the 2018-19 school year, it’s reported as being 34.6%.

But Wake points to how the state changed the way it records Math 1 exam scores. The state used to “bank” Math 1 scores for middle school students and count them when they entered high school.

The state now reports Math 1 scores just for the high school students who take the exam. The middle school students who take Math 1 have it included as part of the school’s eighth-grade math score.

“The state doesn’t do us any favors because they don’t necessarily put any kind of Surgeon General’s warning label on this information when they put it out there for people,” McMillen said. “They dump it on their website and let people make of it what they want.”

Using internal data, Wake added in the middle school students to say the passing rate for all district students who took the Math 1 exam last school year was 63%, compared to 66% the prior year. The Math 1 exam passing rate for Wake’s middle school students was 94%.

Dillard has questioned Wake using data that isn’t publicly available. But even that internal data shows that the passing rating of Wake’s Math 1 high school students dropped 7.4 percentage points from the 2017-18 school year. It dropped 19.4 percentage points when you look at the highest-level of test takers, those who are meeting “college and career ready” standards.

“That’s two more high school students out of 10 who are not college and career ready than they were before,” Dillard said.

State changes Math 1 exam

While scores are lower than the prior year, McMillen points to how the state revised the Math 1 test with changes that include removing several geometry topics and adding in material on quadratic functions that used to be in Math 2.

They’re no longer measuring the same things so it’s simply not possible, according to McMillen, to compare this year’s Math 1 state test results with prior years. He said that difference might not be as understandable for people who aren’t as used to looking at the data.

“They’re trying to uncomplicate something that is very complicated,” McMillen said. “They’re oversimplifying something that is not simple.”

But Dillard, who says he’s spent many hours reviewing the data, would disagree. He’s released several YouTube videos looking at Wake’s test scores, including the Math 1 data.

Dillard said people “should be very careful in disregarding the 2019 Math I scores.” He points to how Wake has repeatedly told families that it picked a math curriculum that matches state standards.

“Based on these claims, WCPSS should have been a leader in the achievement in the 2019 Math 1 EOC, as it was arguably one of the most prepared for the new standards test, based on its curriculum selection,” Dillard said.

Wake used its combined middle school and high school Math 1 scores to report that the district is performing eight percentage points higher than the state average. But if you look only at the high school students, Wake is 6.6 percentage points below the state average.

Dillard notes that Wake’s high school Math 1 passing rate is also lower compared to most of the state’s large districts, including those who have more low-income students and who missed more time due to Hurricane Florence.

McMillen said the performance gap may be exaggerated by how so many Wake students take Math 1 in middle school. But he also acknowledged that Wake has trailed the state average for economically disadvantaged students for many years on many exams.

The gap is something that Dillard says doesn’t align with his perception of how high-performing Wake County should be academically.

“We should be competing at the top of any list related to academics in the state, not near the bottom like we are here,” he said in a YouTube video.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.