By Lisa Loomis
Educational leaders in the Washington West Supervisory Union are taking a careful, and scientific, look at the reasons why Harwood Union juniors are not testing as well in math as students from other high schools in the state.
Washington West Superintendent Brigid Scheffert addressed the issue with the Harwood Union school board on November 18 and also in an interview with <MI>The Valley Reporter<D> this week.
Scheffert, new to the district this summer, explained that there had been a significant emphasis on mathematics in the district for the past five to six years, focusing on professional development, yet school administrators were reporting that students did less well in math at the high school level than they did in other areas.
"We started to talk about it in more depth this fall and to really dig into the data in more depth so that we could analyze it and bring more context to it. Often when people look at the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) data, it gets simplified," Scheffert said.
Scheffert and administrators looked at multiple years of NECAP data to see how students compared at different grade levels in different schools within the district and then compared that data to other schools in Vermont.
WWSU director of curriculum and assessment Sheila Rivers said that when local students leave middle school (whether at Crossett Brook or Harwood), 73 to 74 percent of students taking the eighth-grade NECAPs are meeting or exceeding the state standards in math.
"When the same kids test in 11th grade, we've got 33 percent of the kids meeting or exceeding the standards. One place people go with this data is to say, well, they are high school kids and they don't try. But if that's true we'd see evidence of that in the reading scores as well, and in writing. And we don't. In 11th-grade reading we see 67 percent of kids meeting or exceeding state standards in the NECAPs," Rivers explained.
Scheffert said that the decline in math performance was identified as occurring predominantly in the ninth grade.
"So we looked at the data for that. If we're seeing an overall drop in math performance that manifests around 9th grade, with some in 10th and some in 11th but predominantly in 9th grade, we have to ask why. Proportionately speaking, the number of kids considered in need of additional math support more than doubles from the elementary to the middle school level. So we have to ask, are our expectations too high in ninth grade and how do our students look juxtaposed against students from different schools?" she said.
FIVE OTHER SCHOOLS
Scheffert compared HU 11th-grade math NECAP scores to those of five other Vermont schools -- Burlington, South Burlington, Mount Mansfield, Montpelier and U32 -- and then compared their programs of studies to Harwood to see how the course offerings would compare against results.
"Only one other high school had as many offerings as we did. But we have 13 different math classes than can be taken in ninth grade, compared to an average of five elsewhere. The significant difference is what we needed to explore," she said.
In the five other schools, students' test scores in math from middle school to high school were more consistent, i.e., similar numbers of students met or exceeded state standards in NECAP math testing from 6th to 8th to 11th grade.
Likening the puzzle of curriculum and scores to the need for more medical surgery, Scheffert said that Harwood may be offering students educational brain surgery when heart surgery is what is needed.
"It's not that the instruction was wrong or poor, it's just that it was not what was needed," she said.
"So why were other schools able to maintain their proficiency levels while ours dropped? I asked whether the curriculum we deliver at ninth grade is grade appropriate. That's one question. If it is, then why do we have so many students being placed in math classes that are designed to be more supportive, if not remedial? Why would that be? There could be a lot of reasons. We haven't figured out which surgery we need," Scheffert continued.
In addition to comparing math scores within the district and outside of the district, educators also looked at math scores compared to reading and writing scores, asking if Harwood students did not perform well in math, would they also fail in reading are writing? That was not the case, Scheffert said. "Harwood students 'blew it out of the park in reading and writing."
"Now we're getting diagnostic and moving beyond the notion that math is not as successful. We're redesigning the instructional offerings and how to have fewer courses that are more supportive, such as personal finance and looking at ninth-graders taking algebra and raising those standards in comparison to other math offerings. Ninth grade math will be closing aligned with Vermont standards," she said.
Harwood will also be changing some of its scheduling so that students may take a regular math class and then have the opportunity for an extended block featuring a math lab or study session. Other possible changes include Harwood instituting its own local standardized math assessment program for eighth-grade students.