Friday, April 25, 2014

WCPSS Middle School Math Placement (Really) Explained

For those parents with rising 6th graders in Wake County, it is time to make a choice about the appropriate math class their children should be registering for.  Many parents will meet with their child's teacher and perhaps the guidance counselor and the parents will sign off on a preselected class level and move on without giving this very important choice a second thought.

But, and this is a big "but", this math placement is something that should be considered much more carefully.  It is something that is not intuitive, that 5th grade math teachers don't understand as much as they should, and something that Wake County has made unnecessarily confusing.  A few parents in Wake County know that the choice made for their child's 6th grade math drives the available selection of classes from that point forward.  It determines whether their child will take algebra in 8th grade.  It determines their math track in high school.  If a parent wants their child to have the opportunity to take higher level courses that could impact their college admissions or save them money in tuition down the road, this 6th grade math choice is very important.

If a child has been fortunate enough to excel on the 3rd grade assessments that determine placement in AIG, and if they have excelled enough and are in a school that offers it and have been able to take an accelerated math class in 5th grade, they may already be on the right track but there is some clarification of the choices that is necessary.   If a child is a good student with an aptitude for math but who did not test well for whatever reason, they are probably in regular 5th grade math but could use some additional challenge, and for them, they need to consider their choices too.

In a nutshell, the most common choices for 6th grade math are as follows:  Math 6, Math 6 PLUS, Compacted 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS, and in some very few cases, Math 7 PLUS.

Aside from the infuriatingly confusing naming of these classes, which leads to parents and administrators sometimes dropping off the "plus" when discussing 6+ or 6+/7+ and thus REALLY muddying the conversation, is the equally confusing way in which WCPSS describes the requirements to be able to take these classes and the charts they provide to describe all the myriad pathways for math going through high school.

WCPSS provides multiple documents about math placement, all of which are completely incohesive and which contradict each other.  For example, this chart: Common Core State Standards for Mathematics outlines all of the different math pathways from 6th through 11th grade.  Note that Common Core Math 6 is the first choice listed for rising 6th graders.  However, this document that is used as a reference for parents for 6th grade math options: Middle School Math Placement Guidelines does not list Common Core Math 6 at all but does list Common Core Math I.  It is a fairly useless piece of information as it gives no reference point for these classes in terms of when students typically really take them.  (Common Core Math I for example is not really an option at all for a 6th grader but here it is, listed on this chart, so is this chart a valid reference tool at all?)   This web page: Rising 6th Grade Math Placement Information does list Common Core Math 6.  What a mess!

The bottom line is, students are recommended for / placed in a math class based on their EOG scores and their EVAAS score.  EVAAS is a calculation that gauges a student's probability of scoring 70% or greater in Math I.

If a student does not have an EVAAS of 70% or higher, and does not show an aptitude for higher level math, they are most likely placed in Common Core Math 6 - the grade level math course.  This class does not put students on track to take Common Core Math I (Algebra) in 8th grade.

When considering other math placement guidelines, it gets very confusing, very quickly.  I am going to note one more time that the Middle School Math Placement Guidelines chart (link above) is very flawed.  It includes four math options - 6 PLUS, 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS, 7 PLUS and Common Core Math I, and attempts to merge options for two different classes of students - those who have taken 5th grade math, and those who have taken 6 PLUS math in 5th grade.

The requirements for the various classes depend on which of the two 5th grade math classes the student took!  For example, the requirements for 6 PLUS apply more to a student who took 5th grade math.  It allows for a student in regular math who shows a higher aptitude via EVAAS score of 70% or higher and an EOG score of III, to take a more challenging class - 6 PLUS. Math 6 PLUS covers all of 6th grade math curriculum and one third of 7th grade math curriculum.

BUT, the requirements for 7 PLUS are more likely applicable to the student who took 6 PLUS math in 5th grade.  Though the requirements listed for 7 PLUS are exactly the same as the requirements for 6 PLUS - an EVAAS score of 70% or higher and who has scored a Level III or higher on the most recent EOG - Math 7 PLUS is a much more rigorous course for a 6th grader.  It skips 6th grade math altogether (because it assumes the student taking it has already had the 6th grade curriculum through 6 PLUS math in 5th grade).  7 PLUS covers three quarters of 7th grade math, and one half of 8th grade math.  Very few students, even those who took 6 PLUS math in 5th grade, are recommended for this class in 6th grade.

Then, there is the choice of Math 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS, which is in the second column of the chart and requires extremely stringent placement guidelines - an EVAAS score of 97% or higher and a level IV on the EOG's.  6 PLUS / 7 PLUS covers all of 6th grade math, all of 7th grade math and one half of eight grade standards. 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS guidelines are specifically for students who took regular 5th grade math.  A student who took 6th PLUS math in 5th grade can theoretically take 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS with lesser EVAAS and EOG scores because they've already been exposed to the 6 PLUS curriculum.  (They'll still need a waiver to take the class though because of the way these requirements are structured). The higher requirements listed on the chart assume a student who has never been exposed to the 6 PLUS curriculum.  The class would understandably be more rigorous for them.

Is this confusing enough?  Throw in the fact that the 5th grade teachers don't understand it either.  I was told by one teacher that they place students based on the EVAAS score and EOG score requirements listed on that chart.  This same teacher said they never place 5th graders who've taken regular 5th grade math in 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS because there's no way they would meet the requirement for the class.  That's really scary because it means that the teachers don't even seem to understand that this chart inappropriately mixes guidelines between students who've taken different levels of math in 5th grade.  It means students are most likely being placed incorrectly and it shows a serious disconnect between what central office is doing and how it is being implemented at the school level.

What does this mean for the average student?  Does it really matter in the long run?  I ask this because many teachers and administrators will try to tell parents that as long as their student is on the right track, they're fine.  But as a parent, I disagree.  I think we all want our children to succeed and part of that process involves finding the right place for our kids in school.  We want them to be appropriately challenged at their level - not too little, not too much.

To base math placement solely on a computer generated score and a testing score, and not on the individual student is wrong.  Yes, 6 PLUS in 6th grade will get my kid to Common Core Math I in 8th grade.  But it's not just about that.  If she's already taken 6 PLUS curriculum, won't she be bored taking it again?  Should she take 6 PLUS / 7 PLUS for a bit more challenge?  And based on this messed up chart, will her teacher and principal allow it, even though the chart guidelines really don't apply to her?  Or, if she's taken 5th grade math, will 6 PLUS be too frustrating for her?  Or will it provide a needed challenge that she's missed out on to this point.  And again, will the teacher and principal allow it if she tests poorly and her scores aren't up to par?

So, as middle school math placement looms, I urge every parent to get a really good grasp on what these classes are about, why the level matters, and which one is best for your child.  I urge parents to advocate for their kids and to understand that the school system, with all of its myriad parts, makes mistakes and I urge parents to not make assumptions that their school or teacher will make the right decision for their child.