Will the Wake County school board compromise on the final version of a new middle school math placement policy to go beyond the 5-4 majority that passed it last week?
The Democratic school board members who all voted no said they want to approve a new policy. But they raised concerns that using a 70 percent or higher EVAAS probability of success was too low a cut line. They also said they want to allow teachers to still use professional judgment when they feel a student isn't ready for pre-algebra or Algebra I.
Will the Republican board members who all voted yes compromise on those points to get broader support or stick substantially with what's now in the policy?
Let's start with this handout presented at last week's school board meeting.
Nancy Baenan of Data and Accountability, formerly called Evaluation and Research, was asked by the board to look at some research questions. In particular, school board member Kevin Hill asked about the performance of the Wake students who were in the 70-79 percent probability range.
Of the 98 Wake students placed between 70-79 percent probability, 51 percent scored a Level III or IV to pass the Algebra I end-of-course exam.
Of the 247 Wake students placed with 80-89 percent probability of success, 73 percent passed the Algebra I EOC.
The passing rate rose to 97 percent for the 3,666 students placed who had a 90 to 99 percent EVAAS probability predictor.
Another Wake report looked at 31 Wake students who scored a Level II on the seventh-grade math end-of-grade exam but were placed in Algebra I in eighth-grade for the 2010-11 school year because they had an EVAAS probability of 70 to 79 percent. Fifteen students passed the Algebra I EOC with 14 failing. Two students didn't have an EOC score.
School board vice chairman John Tedesco downplayed the data on the 70 to 79 percent probability students as only representing a small group.
But the Democratic board members repeatedly focused on how only half the 70 to 79 percent probability students were passing.
"I don’t want to set people up for failure," said school board member Carolyn Morrison.
Morrison questioned whether the students who passed did so because they got extra help, which she said would have made it expensive for Wake. She questioned whether that funding for extra support would still exist.
Morrison said the new common core of standards doesn't have students taking Algebra I in eighth-grade. But staff responded that the common course does say that students who are ready for Algebra I are encouraged to take it in eighth-grade.
Hill said he was "hearing from quite a few middle school principals and teachers" about rerostering of courses in which students were dropping out of pre-Algebra after the start of the school year.
Morrison asked why they were only using EVAAS for Algebra I and not other courses like English. Superintendent Tony Tata responded that they only had the EVAAS information for math, which he said offered "some degree of reliability."
Tata was questioned why the policy eliminates the use of professional judgment by teachers to keep students out of pre-algebra and Algebra I. Teachers can only use it to place a student in a harder math course who doesn't meet the 70 percent EVAAS threshold.
"As much as possible, we're trying to remove the bias from the system," Tata said. "What the data shows us is there was bias in the system. It was mostly economically disadvantaged students who were not being placed who were being predicted for success."
Tedesco stressed how important Algebra I in eighth-grade is as a gatekeeper to other courses that help prepare students for college.
"This is not for placement for Algebra’s sake," Tedesco said. "This is for placement for the rest of a student’s life."
Tedesco said the old system resulted in schools not using objective criteria to keep students out of Algebra I in eighth-grade.
School board member Keith Sutton asked "why are we still setting the bar so low" at 70 percent. Tedesco responded that he wanted to give those students an opportunity to succeed.
Let's jump ahead now from the work session to the regular meeting, where some speakers raised concerns about the new math policy.
Bill Muench, a seventh-grade math teacher at Lufkin Road Middle School, congratulated the board for the new policy, saying Wake has been holding back students who would do well in Algebra I in eighth-grade.
But Muench said the EVAAS-based guidelines they're now using have placed a lot of students "who will never ever pass Algebra." He said using 85 percent as the floor is "probably more reasonable." He said getting Ds in Algebra will 'kill them in the future" when students get to high school.
Muench drew light applause from the crowd, which was comprised as usual by mostly supporters of the old diversity policy.
Wake County school board candidate Jim Martin stepped up to the microphone saying that just passing isn't good enough. He's spoken about his concerns about using EVAAS for math placement at several board meetings.
Martin showed the results of N.C. State's chemistry placement exam, where 20 of the 36 questions are Algebra based. He said students on average get 18.6 questions right. For those who don't know, Martin is a chemistry professor at N.C. State.
"If you have children, students who are getting through Algebra with barely the ability to pass it at an EOC level of three, you are discriminating against them because they are not going to be capable to continue into their advanced courses," Martin said.
Martin said it's "reprehensible" to use racial or socioeconomic demographics to keep students out of any course, not just math.
But Martin said Wake's problem isn't that they can't get students into the right tracks. He said the problem is Wake's tracking system is too rigid and needs to be softened.
"Let's address the tracks instead of trying to force people early," Martin said. "Any of our students who can just pass basic Algebra I, we are doing a disservice. If we can get them into Honors Algebra in the eighth-grade, fine.
I would rather every student get into the honors courses rather than trying to rush them and put trophies on our belt to say we got enough students into Algebra."
Martin also drew light applause from the crowd.
Let's move to the discussion that took place at the board table during the regular meeting.
Ron Margiotta used his authority as school board chairman to get the new policy added to the agenda as an action item for first reading. The Democratic members then restated their concerns about the policy.
"As mentioned in the work session, having talked with teachers and principals, looking at the data that was presented, particularly on those students in the EOC Level I and II based on the EVAAS predictor model were 49 percent, or I think as we heard it’s a tossup," Hill said. "I want to be certain that in our attempt to help students, we don’t hurt students. So I have serious concerns about the 70 percent cut line."
Morrison questioned why the board was in "such a hurry" to approve the policy now that the school year has already started. She said they need to study the policy "a little bit more."
Staff said the new policy, if passed, would go into effect for the 2012-13 school year.
Tedesco said they needed to act now, as he pointed to the experiences over the past two years when EVAAS was only used as guidelines and not policy for placement.
"There is a serious division among our middle schools in how they’re implementing this," Tedesco said. "There are those who are implementing it with fidelity — and its guidelines so it’s not policy as we were told routinely by several middle schools that it was guidelines — so those who implemented it with fidelity saw phenomenal success and there are those who have just to some extent practically ignored the guidelines and kind of just went on business as usual.
At this point it’s now prudent to get the system all on the same page and all on track together, and in addition doing this now gives the staff the time they need to work on a lot of pieces of implementation with this.”
Tedesco said staff can use the next year on educating the "stakeholders," i.e. parents. He said they can also educate the staff about the policy and the support they'll need. He said staff can also work on aligning the resources needed at the middle schools.
Tedesco said they can also use the time to develop a compacted math course in fifth-grade that would cover fifth- and sixth-grade math beginning in the 2012-13 school year. This means sixth-graders could take advanced math, which is essentially the regular seventh-grade math course. Then they'd go to pre-algebra in seventh-grade and Algebra I in eighth-grade.
Another benefit of passing the policy now, according to Tedesco, is that staff can work with high school principals to help plan for the additional students that will come into advanced math courses. He said some principals are already doing that planning.
Morrison again questioned why they were only doing this for math and not English, saying she hasn't been asked to solve an algebraic equation since 9th- or 10th-grade.
Morrison, who was a classroom teacher early in her career, also touched on the teacher professional judgment issue.
“Since teachers won’t be allowed to make reasoned decisions concerning Algebra placement, will we apply this policy to other courses as well?" Morrison said. "I have real concerns about kind of tying the teachers' hands, in my opinion. I respect the teachers so much. I think we need to give them all the support they can have.”
Hill said he wants to make sure his questions are answered before the second reading. He said he wants information on rerostering caused by seventh-graders pulling out of pre-algebra because the work is too difficult. He said he also wants to know if there is any longitudinal data on students who take Algebra I in the eighth-grade in terms of how far they progress in taking math.
Board member Anne McLaurin said she wants an update on statewide Algebra I placement data to see how Wake compares. The handout only has N.C. data for 2007-08.
McLaurin also echoed Morrison's concerns about the restrictions on teacher judgment.
"I am concerned if there is a belief that people think that teachers are restricting placement in Algebra," McLaurin said. "But I also think there are ways to approach placement if a teacher is concerned, like including the principal or including the area superintendent or someone else, because it does look like in the 70 to 80 percent there really are a number of kids that are going to get very challenged and perhaps give up math.
And that is not what your intention is, I’m sure. So I would think that if there was some way to include a teacher recommendation without making that the only criteria of placing them."
Sutton suggested they "look at some sort of compromise on that 70 percent cut line so that we can have consensus agreement around the table on this policy." He said he also wants more information on how support would be provided to schools to implement the new policy.
"I support the intent of this policy and I don’t think I have to go very far out on a limb to say that everybody around the table I’m sure probably supports the intent of this policy," Sutton said.
Then you had the 5-4 party line vote with Hill saying he hopes to vote yes on the second reading. Even as Margiotta cast the vote to break the tie, he said he expects adjustments to be made for the second reading. He said he'd like to get everybody on board for this policy.
Let's jump ahead to Friday's press conference in which Tata spoke out strongly for the new policy. He said the policy was passed on first reading “in part to correct historic underrepresentation of disadvantaged and minority students in advanced math classes.”
In addition to Algebra, Tata said staff is identifying several other "key pivot points" along K-12 to help make students ready for college.
"It is the core belief of this school system that all children, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, can be high-achieving students, and what the data shows is that we were not placing about 50 percent of qualified students in pre-algebra or Algebra I soon enough, or at all," Tata said. "Where necessary, we will use data to put our core beliefs into practice and help all students. That is our charge.
And of course we value the experience and professionalism and judgment of our math teachers, and I know they’re working hard to ensure that all students are successful, and I thank them for their input on this important issue."
Later on in the press conference, I asked Tata about the concerns raised that using a 70 percent cutoff could set students up for failure.
Tata noted that the data only looked at 98 students. But he said he might recommend that parents of students who have a 70 to 75 percent probability meet with school staff and the principal to discuss placement. (Tedesco said he might support that idea.)
But Tata rejected the idea that it's discriminatory to place those students who are between 70 to 79 percent probability of success.
“We know we’re setting them up for failure if we don’t put them into Algebra," Tata said. "That’s a fact. All the research nationwide shows that the sooner you take Algebra I and make a C or better, the more likely you are to go to college. That is an indisputable fact around the nation.
We know that one pathway to failure is the pathway where we choose not to look at this data and move students into Algebra I. It is for some people perhaps riskier to try to encourage students or place students into Algebra if their indicator is in the 70th percent range. But I would rather take the risk of that student succeeding than betting that student can not succeed.”
CORRECTED TO SAY 20 OF THE 36 QUESTIONS ON NC STATE'S CHEM PLACEMENT EXAM DEAL WITH ALGEBRA