Op-Ed: District Lacking Transparency for Critical Middle School Math Placements, Can Cost Kids Future Options

UPDATE | AUGUST 27, 2014

On Tuesday, August 26th, according to a school-wide email, the Twin Falls Middle School Administration temporarily disabled the school’s online schedule as they “review math placements”

Twin Falls says parents will receive email notification when the online system is back up so that parents can review their child’s classes.  Additionally, Twin Falls students will receive new schedules on the first day of school, Wednesday, September 3rd.  The school apologized for any confusion caused.

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Do you know what math path your child is on?

Two Snoqualmie 7th families thought they did, but were surprised to learn [last week] that the district changed course and set their kids’ math education back two years; this after the students received A’s in 6th grade math and as new state statutes require parental notification and consent for education pathway changes.

Common sense points to an A in pre-algebra moving a student to algebra, right? Not so fast – and possibly not this year for many Snoqualmie Valley students.

An important education decision is being made for students by the district (with little parent notification) in the name of common core – a decision with critical, future education impacts for high school and beyond.

Becoming Informed: Algebra by 8th Grade Creates More Opportunities

Taking algebra in middle school is a path toward having high level math options available in high school. Algebra by 8th grade makes high school calculus an option.

Eight years ago, with my oldest child, I was clueless about math paths. No one told me how they worked. I knew my daughter was good at math. She took algebra in 8th grade. I did not know then that her math journey was a Snoqualmie Valley Schools accelerated math pathway. Ditto that scenario for my second child.

When my third child neared middle school, I began wondering why he wouldn’t take algebra until high school. Answer? Because he was on the district’s standard math path when I assumed his sisters’ paths were the norm. I dropped the ball. The school didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.

But things began to change. In 2011, our school district improved communication about middle school math. Math pathways were widely communicated and parents began understanding.

My youngest child’s elementary school math curriculum got a boost, and by the time she hit 6th grade she was placed in pre-algebra and performed well all year. She was on a path toward high level high school math options – if she wanted them.

Last week, though, that changed when we got her 7th grade schedule. Her math pathway was reset without us knowing and consenting.

The option to take high school calculus was wiped away. Will she even want to take calculus five years from now? Who knows, but choices are good – especially in a math and science driven economy.

Math Pathway Reset Can Reduce Options | Pay attention to Math Changes in 2014-15

Have you learned your child’s new middle school math pathway yet?

It’s time to look at that new schedule and take note of those new math course titles that are launching across the state as part of common core.

Why? Because that new 6th or 7th grade math class will determine students’ future high school math choices – and possibly impact future college applications.

It all starts now – whether parents are ready or not. Right now the school district is deciding part of your child’s education future. Parents have a say.

What’s common core?

This year might be a confusing one for Snoqualmie Valley parents as school districts hit a math curriculum “reset” button and begin using common core state standards.

Basically, common core is a shift in curriculum standards to align all districts to the same, high teaching. Why?  Essentially to level the playing field and to ensure more kids are college and career ready. So if you change school districts (within the state or nationwide), your child will have access to the same teaching and standards.

According to SVSD, the shift to Common Core Math State Standards (CCSS) includes:

  • Greater focus on fewer topics:
  • Coherence
  • Rigor

This means a year of changing and renaming Snoqualmie Valley middle school math pathways – pathways that were just created and clarified to parents three years ago.

It’s kind of a big deal, so parents listen up.

For current middle schoolers, these important pathways determine their math options throughout high school. Future high school math opportunities are a direct result of a decision being made today by the district on behalf of students a decision that can even impact future college applications.

The Snoqualmie Valley School District is not using an “informed, self-select” registration process for middle school math pathways like in neighboring Issaquah School District. Current SVSD 7th and 8th grade students took placement tests last year, which determined their new common core math pathways.

My 7th grader, after completing and receiving an A- in 6th grade Pre-Algebra, had her math pathway ‘reset’ to this new system and was placed into Math 7 – lowering her math path TWO levels (i.e. years) and wiping away the natural progression and option to reach calculus during high school. The same thing happened to her close friend.

Pay attention. Planning now, asking questions now, and having all the information now is easier than playing catch up when 9th grade orientation happens.

NEW Common Core Math Paths

According to a SVSD letter from March, one which many parents say they did not receive, new common core math pathways look like this:

common core paths

Here is a math pathway explanation from the Issaquah School District:

ISDcommon core paths

6th/7th Grade Math Critical Decision Point

As illustrated in both slides, math pathways established in 7th grade determine different course options though high school – and the ability to reach calculus.

In the case of my own child, her path was drastically changed this year, altering her future math options and reducing them from the prior year’s math pathway. [We are trying to rectify the situation.]

Now, will she want to take high school calculus? I don’t know. What I do know is that she performed well in 6th grade Pre-Algebra. She’s 12. It’s about keeping her future options open. We won’t know her math aspirations until she hits high school, but let’s not close the door yet – or make it hard to push that door back open.

Calculus and College Admissions

Many students may decide not to take high school calculus, but the above slides illustrate possible math class options – not the requirement to take all of the courses listed. This is about options – not requirements.

Will students need calculus to get into college? Many counselors say probably not and then in the same breath say, “but it doesn’t hurt.” Plenty of colleges don’t require calculus for admission. But what if  a current 7th grader, by the time they reach high school, sets their sights on a college that is competitive? It might become a game changer.

The University of Washington Admissions Office said last year that about 90% of its students took pre-calculus in high school and 57% of students admitted took calculus in high school. The University of Washington is considered a mid-range competitive college, with 54% of students applying being admitted.

Washington State University admitted 76% of applicants in 2012. Western Washington University admitted 84% of applicants in 2013. More competitive schools like NYU admit 32% of applicants and UCLA admits 22%, according to 2013 stats.

Once again, it’s about future options that a middle math pathway can provide.

Doors Open – Not Closed or Hard to Re-Open

Math doors should remain open as long as students are performing well, mastering concepts and completing curriculum.

Simple placements tests can’t possibly tell the whole story when it comes to middle school students. A full picture is needed and parents should be informed, consulted and taken along for the ride with their child’s school – as part of a group effort.

Gatekeeping or additional opportunities with support? Math isn’t always easy, but neither is life. Sometimes it takes hard work and lots of support. Should we only ask kids to take classes that are easy or not too difficult for them? Parents need to weigh in and decide.

Getting the Information

Ask your child what math class they were in last year and compare it to this year’s new pathways. To find out more about the method used for your child’s math pathway placement, including placement test scores, or to discuss a class change, contact the counseling offices at Chief Kanim and Twin Falls Middle Schools.

Comments

  1. Tanya Alter says

    We are dealing with this too at 8th grade. I was told by a school counselor last year, that once in high school they can take extra classes to move them out of the lower path. I hope that is correct, because I’m counting on it.

    • Danna McCall says

      Yes, often times that is the case, but doubling up is not as easy as being on the correct path from the start.

    • Anna sotelo says

      But the lower path in middle school will effect the science classes they can take in HS! I lived that experience first hand this year with my new freshman.

  2. *smh*

    Yes, having your kid take “calculus” (trust me, the HS calculus is not the same as the university level calculus) is way more important than actually getting a deep and accessible understanding of math.

    Universities are actually becoming more frustrated with students coming in thinking they know calculus but end up retaking and getting Cs. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics NCTM several years ago urged high schools to refrain from offering calculus unless it
    could be taught at a university level—staffed by a qualified instructor, and enrolled by
    qualified and capable students. Despite this position, the majority of high school
    calculus courses are still thin introductions, inadequate to provide advanced placement
    into college courses. Shouldn’t the only calculus taught in high school be university
    calculus?

    • Yes, LW. There is a disconnect between HS and college admissions counselors and requirements. Colleges want Calc in the senior year. Unless you choose to be an engineer, math or science major, you do not need college calculus. Most business majors take Business Calc in college and HS Calc prepares them just fine. Rather than making decisions on their own of what their students need, SVSD admin and the college counseling staff should work with the admissions counselors from WA State Colleges.

  3. Stephen Kangas says

    “University level calculus” varies widely between universities, and it can be surprising how bad the calculus courses are at some universities (even here in WA) that are popularly viewed as “top” level schools. Some public high schools offer better calculus courses than what their graduates encounter in college, ie more effective at engaging the students into learning. With that said, I’m not hearing good things about MSHS calculus but then I haven’t yet examined their curriculum or teachers (which will occur no later than when my 8th grade daughter, whose excited about math and in the accelerated math pathway, reaches MSHS)..
    More important than the curriculum, the key to effective student learning of any subject, and particularly math, is the teacher skill in engaging and exciting students into learning it with better academic outcomes. When students find the class fun & exciting, and they have a feeling of on-going accomplishment (ie, good self esteem), then their speed of learning goes up…the definition of the word “rigor” as it’s popularly used in classes is the speed/pace of teaching a subject to cover more of the topic during the allotted time. The science of education research clearly shows this. Many universities have instructors (professors) who lack the skills to engage their students into a more rigorous calculus course, resulting in disappointment on the part of both students and the university when so many students under-perform. I have been advocating SVSD to focus on increasing “teacher effectiveness” (the term used to describe the most important factor in improving student academic outcomes) by way of much better “professional development” (the term used by many districts, inc SVSD, of programs used to teach teachers how to engage students into being excited about learning). Altho, thankfully, some progress is being made by SVSD in teacher pro dev, it is painfully slow and needs much more focus and investment. This is the long-term fix to the problem being discussed hear, which parents of today’s elementary school kids need to be particularly involved in, but that also affects today’s middle school students when they eventually get to MSHS.
    In the meantime, parents should consider supplementing the SVSD math classes with at-home support as needed to keep their kids engaged and progressing…otherwise the kids may be at risk of losing interest or even discouraged about math and that may hurt them later. There are many online tools today for that are relatively inexpensive, and finding creative ways to relate kids’ everyday experiences to math.

  4. Shouldn’t there be some consideration for ability based learning? I’m talking about students who are interested in math and ready for something more challenging, maybe earlier than most. A brain is a terrible thing to waste, and holding a child back, keeping a child from reaching for higher challenges, is like asking a great runner to slow down to stay with the pack. Pretty soon they will be bored, and interest. The sad thing is, they will lose their potential for becoming even faster and better.
    As much as some try to mandate equality, equal opportunity with no limits of success would be a better way.

  5. Carolyn Simpson says

    Speaking as a parent in response to the calculus and college level class comments: We had two kids graduate from MSHS two years apart. I humbly share that they both were accepted to UW and they both ended up graduating from the Foster School of Business. They both took AP Calculus at MSHS; they had an awesome teacher; and they both passed the AP Calculus test. This allowed them to enter college with college credit because AP Calculus is considered a college level calculus class. Although our kids both intended to focus on STEM type majors in college (like engineering and health sciences), they both switched to business majors early on. Calculus was required for both of the STEM type majors as well as for the business majors. You can see the information for Foster School of Business here: http://www.washington.edu/students/gencat/academic/school_business.html#UNDER
    and see information regarding the Math classes Foster refers to here:
    http://www.washington.edu/students/crscat/math.html
    Because they had taken Calculus in high school, and because they passed the AP test, they did not have to take that class in college, which ended up either saving some tuition (along with some of the other AP classes they took in high school) or freeing up their schedule to take some of the business or other classes in which they had interest.
    I will also add that it is very competitive to both get into UW and to get into the School of Business, and we are very proud of our kids and thankful for the teachers and curriculum that they had. But, we also carefully took note of the admission requirements for this school as well as for other competitive schools and we all worked diligently to navigate our way through the system to ensure they were taking rigorous courses in high school (and middle school math particularly). The Foster School of Business states, regarding their entrance requirements for Freshman Direct Admission (straight out of high school): “Admission is offered to students with exceptionally competitive academic records, including but not limited to high school GPA and SAT or ACT scores.” It is my understanding that most of their friends in college, many of which come from Puget Sound area schools as well as California and Massachusetts, had Calculus in high school. I recently talked with some of these kids and they said when I asked about taking calculus in high school and they responded, “why wouldn’t you?”

  6. Barbara Scott says

    I doubt there is any upper level students (11th, 12th) at MSHS taking a math class that ‘they aren’t ready for’, such as pre-calc, calc. By this time, those students have selected a different course. However, I do know several who wish that they had been more prepared for those higher level classes, knew what math path they were on in middle school (because SVSD math paths weren’t ‘published’ a few yrs back–seriously, they were kept ‘secret’.), and WISH they had different choices. Once you leave middle school, your math destiny is chartered. Math paths should be well known, consistent, AND have exit ‘ramps’ on and off, as well as parallel tracks. It’s about providing information to the parent and student so they can plan accordingly (like taking a summer or on-line course to supplement or boost ahead). It’s about choices for the student and parent.
    And it’s flat out WRONG to not allow a kid who makes a B (or a C for that matter) in a math class to move ahead. How in the world are we any different from any other school district in the area. If this is the case, then students from other Districts will have an unfair advantage when it comes to post high school education.

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