Secrets, Roadblocks: District Limits Access to More Rigor in Math, Language Arts

Something is quietly happening in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, something many parents might not notice until their student is in 5th grade- when it’s time to start the middle and high school journey.  And sometimes it isn’t spotted until a high school student moves from course to course.

But it is happening… the subtle shifting of some Snoqualmie Valley students into an education slow lane.

It started with math. Four years ago the Snoqualmie Valley School District revamped its math pathways after parents realized that in other nearby school districts, accelerated math courses (i.e. algebra and geometry) in middle school were easier for students to access.

After this change that opened up a “fast lane,” more students began reaching algebra and geometry by 8th grade, which trickled up to the high school and allowed students time to take more high-level math and science courses.

But last year another shift happened when Common Core roared its way across the country: the SVSD math pathways changed again. And while other area districts maintained their program acceleration rates with Common Core, SVSD slowed theirs down, using caution so as not to place students too high, saddle them with too much pressure, make sure a thorough understanding of all topics occurred.

Parent voice and teacher recommendations were removed from the placement process, only tests scores and high cut rates would be used. The appeal process became more difficult.

What resulted was significantly fewer 5th graders allowed on the 6th grade path to access algebra and geometry during middle school. On the district’s new, most common math pathway titled “core,” algebra is taken in 9th grade and by 12th grade students can only reach Algebra 3 or Pre-calculus. There is opportunity to accelerate, but it often involves doubling up on math courses or summer school.

This most common pathway also makes it more difficult (impossible if not doubling up) for more students to access college-level math courses during high school. The standard math path for all students in Bellevue offers algebra in 8th grade. In Issaquah, an Informed Self Select process is used, one in which parents and students can register for any class they want and continues throughout a student’s high school registration process.

Bellevue, Issaquah & UW on Math

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In Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Seattle and Tukwila School Districts, part of the Road Map Project, the goal is to have more students reach algebra in middle school, which gives access to higher level math courses to prepare them for college and career.

The same is true in the Tacoma School District where Mount Si High School graduate, Josh Garcia, is the Deputy Superintendent and utilizes a culture of high expectations, employing an opt out vs opt in strategy to improve student access to higher level courses.

In 2013 when Garcia was named a national Young Educator of the Year he said:

“I believe every student should and can graduate from our schools well-prepared for higher education. Unfortunately, many of the brick walls our children face are human made. Schools and community leaders must work relentlessly to dissolve these barriers and build cohesive systems that promote excellence for all.”

Math Roadblock Emerges in High School

But even if your child accesses algebra or imagegeometry in middle school, another roadblock is waiting in high school because included in the new SVSD math pathway is a ‘secret’ you won’t discover until your child takes Algebra 2. At this point and when registering for Pre-calculus – the next standard math course progression – they get a teacher recommendation form ‘announcing’ if they should move onto Algebra 3 or Pre-calculus.

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This year, only students getting a 93% or solid A in regular (not honors) Algebra 2 were recommended to move to pre-calculus, even when the MSHS course guidebook states a B- qualifies the student. That recommendation is also hard-coded into the school’s computer registration system – meaning a student can only register for the ‘recommended’ course.

Students are told they can ‘ignore’ the recommendation and choose their own class by meeting with their counselor to remove the hard coding. BUT, if they do choose to take pre-calculus against their teacher’s recommendation, they and their parents must first sign a contract.

This all happened to my son last week, who will be a senior and is succeeding in Algebra 2 with a B. I addressed the school board verbally and in writing, as this ‘roadblock’ to senior year pre-calculus for my college-bound child seemed wrong.

Essentially I was left wondering: “Since when is a B not good enough to move onto the next natural math class – and what exactly is Algebra 3?” It is not a common course in other districts, yet Mount Si High School is currently [quietly] promoting it AND tracking over 50% of algebra 2 students into it.

WHY and Is This Normal?

The Director of Huntington Tutoring Center in Issaquah concurred that Algebra 3 (sometimes called Advanced Algebra) is not a common course, that the nationally recognized course progression for students is Algebra 2 to Pre-calculus if the course is in line with their post high school plans.

She noted that SVSD’s ‘B-‘ course guidebook requirement for pre-calc is already more strict than other school districts in the area. She said the teacher recommendation letter, the registration hard-code and a signed contract to take pre-calculus when a student is succeeding in Alg 2 were things she had never heard of before – adding that a contract is not necessary to access pre-calculus when a student was doing well in the previous course.

In an email, MSHS Principal John Belcher said the move to place large numbers of Algebra 2 students to Algebra 3 instead of pre-calculus is not to restrict them and said not assume that it in someway harms students.

He stated the move actually helps with what he called a “concerning trend of stressed out, anxious and increasing suicide ideation” they are seeing at Mount Si, in which he said math is a big component. He also added that many Algebra 3 students go on to great colleges. [He did not, though, provide data supporting the claim about math’s role in student stress.]

Parent Amy Pangborn, whose son is currently in Algebra 3 and feels his prior algebra 1 and 2 instruction was not adequate, countered by saying, “A good middle school foundation and competent high school instruction goes a long way to removing anxiety and stress.”

Loss of an Honors Class

Math wasn’t the only education issue creeping in this week as students began registering for next year’s classes. Parents were also informed that the 9th grade Language Arts Honors class will no longer be offered the Freshman Campus. The class had previously been offered through a self-select process.

According to the school, students can still earn an honors designation by signing a contract, completing outside work and meeting testing requirements. In a contrasting philosophy, all Bellevue School District 9th graders are placed in LA Honors and those who need extra help are provided it.

Parent Nicole Spaziano said she and her husband have yet to receive an answer from the principal as to why this language arts change is happening and what the benefits to students might be. One school board member said she was surprised and unaware of these changes.

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The End Result

While the Snoqualmie Valley School District’s graduation rate has improved significantly in recent years (up to 92% in 2015), Issaquah, Bellevue, Lake Washington, Tahoma, Kent, and Riverview School District graduates all have (some significantly) higher college entrance rates.

For information, including email address, about Snoqualmie Valley School Board members visit the SVSD School Board website page HERE.

Comments

  1. I agree with Danna and would like to add more to what is going on with the Algebra 2 courses at Mount Si High School. My daughter took this class this year and she told me that less than 20% of the students had the A required to get into PreCalculus next year. The remaining 80% are being subjected to Algebra 3. This is extremely unfair to the students not just because many of them had a B average but because this Algebra 2 class was without a knowledgeable teacher for more than 3 months. These students were basically left with a babysitter and they are now being punished with this Algebra 3 course. The school district owes an apology to these students and to their parents. I realize that we need to pay teachers more to reduce the teacher shortage. But if other school districts such as Issaquah can find a way to hire real math teachers, then so should our school district.

    • Jeannie Saimo says

      Hi David, I hope some of the students in your daughter’s class who feel like they would like to advance to precalc ask the administration. Achieving a 93% on exams seems like an artificially high number to advance to the next level class. Especially since the Alg 2 honor students only have to have an 85%. The freshman class doesn’t have an honors designation but I was verbally told that 9th graders taking Alg 2 are considered honor students.

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