It took eight months, but the Wake County school board was finally able to agree on passing a middle school math placement policy.
As noted in today's article, the policy got over the hump when staff proposed a number of changes to both the policy and the placement criteria that win over the support of Democratic board members Christine Kushner and Keith Sutton to form a majority with Republicans on the issue. Click here for the adopted policy and here for the revised placement criteria.
"We raised our concerns and staff came up with some good suggestions to them that it was enough for me to support the policy," Kushner said.
As you guys may recall, Kushner had voted in favor of fellow Democratic board member Jim Martin's motion to kill the policy. Sutton had voted against the first incarnation of the policy in the fall and had backed tabling the motion until after the elections.
Staff didn't back down on using 70 percent as the floor for EVAAS probability of success for placing students.
"We believe that casting a wider net is more important,” said Ruth Steidinger, senior director of middle school programs. “It helps to fix some of the issues that we had previously about not capturing all students who have potential.”
Steidinger said that using 70 percent would enroll more students who have potential to do the harder material but who don't have the advocates who'd recommend placement if a higher score was used.
But staff agreed to put in the placement criteria wording saying that 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.
"They didn't raise the 70 percent line, but this is better," Sutton said.
Staff also answered Sutton's concerns by including wording in the criteria saying that principals will “ensure that all students have equal access to quality teaching.” Sutton had wanted some kind of wording on that topic after staff analysis showed that passing rates last school year were much higher for the 70-79 percent EVAAS eighth-graders in Algebra I who were placed with an average or above-average teacher.
Kushner said she was especially supportive of wording in the placement criteria saying that students won't be recommended for higher placement if it meant they'd skip courses.
Even though he didn't vote for the policy, staff made a policy revision sought by Martin adding wording that teachers could recommend students be placed in lower courses than indicated by the data. Before the revision, the policy had only said parents could make that request for a lower placement.
"If a student regularly, for example, is not doing their homework a teacher’s going to know that," Martin said. "They might place well but if they don’t have discipline to do your work, you’re sure not going to learn the math.
And a teacher is going to know that even if it doesn’t show up on an exam. Again, that’s not giving the teacher authority to make it happen, it’s giving the teacher authority to say, ‘Hey principal, please take a look at this situation, here’s my documentation.'”
But ultimately, the 70 percent figure was too low for Martin and fellow Democratic board members Susan Evans and Kevin Hill to back the policy.
Evans said that EVAAS hasn't been around that long so "we can’t possibly have enough statistical data to know how on target it is." She said using a higher figure would get more buy in and make the policy less contentious.
While not used by Wake for long, a staff member said EVAAS been around for many years.
Martin painted a grim picture of what he said could happen by allowing students with 70 to 79 percent probability in the higher math courses. He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the kids identified as ready by EVAAS would be in the one-year accelerated class with the top 10 percent in the two-year accelerated course.
“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 the bottom," Martin said during the board work session. "This is exactly why they shouldn't be all placed in the same class. We need to recognize there’s a difference."
In interviews Wednesday, Kushner, Steidinger and Sutton downplayed talk that the advanced courses would be dumbed down.
"I don't think our teachers and principals would do that to the curriculum," Kushner said. "I trust them to carry out the intent of the board policy."
Martin continued his criticism of the 70 percent figure during the regular meeting.
Martin gave the example of how he has his N.C. State freshmen chemistry students do a problem in which they calculate the IV solution for a patient. While there's some chemistry involved, Martin said that it's mostly using algebra.
Martin said that typically one-third to one-half of his students get the problem wrong and the patient dies.
Martin linked his IV example to a scatter plot of scale scores for the 98 eighth-graders in the 70-79 percent probability range who were placed in Algebra I in the 2010-11 school year.
Martin said the scatter plot showed only four of the students scored a Level IV and that many who did pass were on the low side of Level III.
"I want to see a foundation of math so that we actually get the learning we need because there is a liability issue down the road," Martin said. "And I look at this barely 25 percent of these children are getting the foundation that they need for success in mathematics. I want to see success, that’s what I care about. I don’t see that with this number.
That’s why I think the 70 percent cutoff, this data even further supports that that cutoff is inappropriate. We’re not preparing the students that we need for the workforce, for college readiness. We’re substantially disadvantaging them if we’re pushing this cohort too early. We need to build the foundation.”
Steidinger said that the scatter plot needs to be put into the context of how some of those students were placed in Algebra I without having taken regular eighth-grade math. She said the new placement criteria covers that by not allowing students to skip classes.
Steidinger also cautioned that the 98 students represent a very small sample size and are the students who were probably at greatest risk.
Noting that they've made "great strides in helping math teachers know how to teach math students differently," she said that the scatter plot doesn't provide clear evidence that the 70-79 percent students can't be successful.
"This doesn’t present to me in a glaring fashion that 70-79 percent kids can’t be successful," Steidinger said.
Martin wasn't convinced, arguing that the students should have waited until ninth-grade to take Algebra I after getting reinforcement in regular eighth-grade math.
“That same student, if you had done the reinforcement in this year, given that amount of work, I can almost guarantee to you that person would have had a IV one year later if we had done the appropriate education in this year," Martin said. "Instead, this person being a low III, they passed, but that person will always have a weak foundation and so to argue that this person is evidence of this is an opportunity that they should have been given, I will argue no.
The opportunity this person should have been given was to have the correct instruction for their level so that in the following year and even in this year, instead of having a III here, they’d be blowing away at a IV. Then this person will have success the rest of their career."
With the policy passed, Sutton talked about how it will prevent biases from excluding minority students from being placed in advanced math courses.
“In all segments of society, biases and stereotypes exist,” 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.”
That was a touchy issue when raised by Republican school board members and Superintendent Tony Tata.