It was a very crowded and very long school board meeting on Thursday, April 14, 2016. Parents packed the room once again to discuss the contentious topic of middle school math pathways (core, accelerated, or exceptional), which determine the sequence of math courses available to students until they graduate from high school.
Currently the critical choice is made by the district for students when they enter middle school, and is based solely on a cut score determined by a complicated formula that averages two tests – one aptitude and one achievement – with an 87% or higher average required to accelerate.
The accelerated and exceptional pathways offer access to 8th grade algebra and 11th grade pre-calculus, which are often considered important benchmarks for some college bound students, especially those pursuing more selective schools. The core pathway, the recommended path of Common Core, also gives access to both courses, but in 9th grade and 12th grade.
Two years ago when the district revamped the pathways with the roll out of common core, the newly established high cut scores for accelerated pathway placement significantly reduced the number of students having access to middle school algebra, which is viewed as a gatekeeper to higher level math courses in high school, as well as college preparation and admissions.
Currently the district says 30% of 6th graders and 40% of 7th graders are on an accelerated or higher pathway.
In March, feeling that more students are capable of taking 8th grade algebra like in other nearby districts, a parent group collected 600 petition signatures requesting the district use an Informed Self Select Process for the critical math pathway placement. With such a policy, the district would make a recommendation based upon a cut score, but the ultimate pathway choice would lie with the family.
It was apparent at Thursday’s meeting, though, that the district will not [significantly] change how it places students – and the placement decision will stay at the sole discretion of the district.
Parent voice is part of the process, but only if families choose to appeal the placement decision and is limited to a district checklist regarding ‘Social and Emotional Readiness to Accelerate.’
Pathway Process Tweaked
During the meeting the Math Pathway Committee did say it had tweaked its process by slightly lowering the cut score used to place students between 5th and 6th grade. They estimated by lowering the score one point they could include another 10-12 students in the accelerated pathway. They also said Smarter Balanced Assessment scores could be used as additional data, with students scoring a 4 (highest level) considered for the accelerated path, but they would not automatically be placed as with the cut score process.
Parents not in agreement with the district’s placement can file a Math Pathway Advancement Request Form, which can result in a student having to take and/or submit more test and class scores.
Students doing extremely well in Common Core 6th grade math can also file a Math Pathway Advancement Request Form before 7th grade. The criteria for performing extremely well and possible 7th grade advancement includes averaging 92% on all course tests; only missing five days of school; a 92nd percentile or higher on STAR math tests; and getting a 4 on the 5th grade SBA test.
Assistant Superintendent Jeff Hogan said with the new tweaks, they should slightly increase the number of kids on the accelerated math, giving access to 8th grade algebra. He also hoped that as more elementary students are exposed to common core standards, accelerated pathway rates will continue to rise in the coming years.
Parents Say Not Enough, Missing Capable Kids
For many parents in the audience, especially those with current or approaching middle schoolers, that wasn’t enough. Some said the district was missing capable kids on the cusp of its high cut scores, and the appeals process (now called the Math Advancement Form) is too rigid, excluding about 40-50% of kids that appeal for more challenging math. Many parents also felt the district was leaving out the voice that knows the child best – the parent.
One parent said she hoped the district’s plan to increase its accelerated numbers in future years panned out, but she has a 4th and 6th grader and wanted to know what the plan was for all the students stuck in the “in-between” years – that many weren’t being allowed to try due to high cut scores, and for those who did appeal, it wasn’t an easy process.
State Representative Magendanz Makes Surprise Appearance
Washington State 5th District Representative and ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, Chad Magendanz, showed up at the meeting and addressed the school board about Informed Self Selection (ISS), speaking to its effectiveness since the Issaquah School District rolled it out while he served as school board president.
He said Snoqualmie Valley kids are no less capable than kids in Issaquah, where they try to get the majority of students to algebra by 8th grade, which in turn helps at the high school level with kids able to reach higher level math in their pursuit of college. He said pushing some core 24 high school graduation credit requirements down to middle school also makes scheduling easier for high school students limited by a 6-period day.
No, no and Nope
Most of the school board, though, was not receptive to Informed Self Selection.The exception was Carolyn Simpson who consistently communicated that the number of SVSD’s students on the path to 8th grade algebra significantly lags that of its neighbors. She said it is important to find all the capable middle school students to provide the appropriate amount of challenge.
Simpson pointed to statistics showing that kids who take algebra earlier and complete pre-calculus before taking the SAT score about 35% higher; that higher level math is needed for STEM degrees; and also correlates with attending and succeeding in college.
Although the Snoqualmie Valley School District’s on-time graduation rate is improving, it is still sending fewer students to college than neighboring districts – in some cases significantly fewer students.
In 2013 (the most recent year tracked by OSPI), SVSD had 63% of graduates enroll in 2 and 4-year colleges. In Issaquah that number was 86%, Bellevue: 84%; Lake Washington: 81%; Northshore: 77%; Tahoma 72%; Kent: 71%; Riverview: 69%; Auburn: 65%; Renton and Federal Way both were 62%. And of those school districts, only Issaquah had a lower poverty rate than SVSD.
Superintendent Prefers Balance
Superintendent Aune spoke about balance versus pushing students when it comes to math, saying balance was important to him as well as teachers, noting that teachers are seeing an uptick of kids “crumbling under pressure,” which in his opinion was “at an all-time high.”
Aune added, “There are parents that cause us concern about putting pressure on kids” and said he hoped parents understood the district’s good intentions even as they disagreed on the topic.
One parent who wished to remain anonymous said the district’s assumption that all parents will over place and over burden their children was offensive – that parents know their child’s capabilities and desires the best.
Parent Jeb Haber spoke to the board about the frustration over his son not being advanced and given a chance to try. Faber said he works in the high-tech industry; knows the importance of higher level math; knows his son’s capabilities and because his son missed school during preparation for last year’s placement tests, his fate was sealed as a 6th grader.
Another parent told the board that the same self select policy the high school uses for the Algebra 2 to Algebra 3 or Pre-Calc transition – one where students are given a recommendation from their teacher, but still allowed to sign a self select form to make a different choice – should be also utilized in the middle school math placement.
The district says there are points when students can still accelerate during high school. That acceleration route comes at a cost and is difficult to accomplish, though. Students who are deemed “highly successful” in 9th grade algebra 1 will be allowed to take geometry online while concurrently taking Algebra 2 during the school day – or doubling up. Many parents, though, feel this is an unrealistic option, as many students do not have time to add an extra class to their already full high school schedules.
The parent group in favor of Middle School Math Informed Self Select say the most realistic time to try to accelerate is middle school, and if it proves too much for a student they can always pull back with no detriment to their high school transcript. They say it’s about allowing a child the chance to try – not defining their whole secondary education path after 5th grade using a complicated formula from two tests.