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home : schools : schools August 21, 2017

6/14/2017 3:05:00 PM
District 65 Board De-tracks Algebra Classes
By Larry Gavin

On June 12, the District 65 School Board approved a recommendation presented by administrators to eliminate tracking of students in algebra classes at Chute, Haven and Nichols middle schools by consolidating Algebra 8 into Algebra 1.  Algebra 1 will be a mixed-level class, with class sizes projected at between 25 and 29 students next year. The recommendation will be phased in at one or more schools for the 2017-18 school year, and at any remaining schools in 2018-19. 

Matsuo Marti, Director of STEM at the District, presented the recommendation, together with a report, at the June 5 and 12 Board meetings.

Superintendent Paul Goren, said, “The commitment is to maintain the same rigor, approach, and focus of Algebra for all students. Our intent is to offer Algebra 1 with the intent that all students will be successful and will have the intentional supports to ensure success for all students.”

Dr. Goren said administrators proposed the changes to increase access and opportunity for all students in Algebra 1 and not segregate students. He said the recommendation took into account the expertise of District 65 teachers and school leaders; research that shows the importance of heterogeneous, mixed-ability classrooms where high achievers continue to perform at high levels and struggling learners can show improvements; and data and research that indicates that courses like Algebra 1, coupled with intentional supports, will lead to continued growth.

 The recommendations were first presented at the Board’s June 5 meeting after school was out and after placement letters were already mailed to families, raising questions about the timing, transparency, and the process.

Combining Algebra 1 and Algebra 8

Mr. Marti said the District currently offers multiple pathways for students in math. Students on the algebra pathway complete algebra by the time they graduate from District 65, putting them on a path to take at least one Advanced Placement math course at Evanston Township High School. Students on a geometry pathway complete geometry by the time they graduate from District 65, putting them on a path to take two AP math courses at ETHS.

The algebra and geometry pathways serve 98% of the students in the District. The proposal to end tracking does not impact the pathways, but would combine Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 classes at the middle schools, said Mr. Marti.

Currently, the District offers Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 in the middle schools. Algebra 1 is offered to students based on their performance on the Spring MAP test in math and the District 65 math placement assessment. Historically it has been regarded as an honors course, and at one time it offered a more rigorous curriculum than Algebra 8.

Data shows that 90% of the students taking Algebra 1 are in the fourth quartile nationally (the top 25% of students in the nation), and the remaining 10% are in the third quartile (falling between the 50th and 74th percentiles). Thirteen percent of the students taking Algebra 8 are in the fourth quartile nationally, 41% are in the third quartile. 

In 2012-13, the District initiated an algebra pilot in the magnet schools, Bessie Rhodes and King Arts (the Algebra Pilot). In the pilot, Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 were combined into a single Algebra course, and students at all levels were placed in the same class, regardless of math achievement.

In 2014, the District started to use the same textbook for all the algebra courses; and in 2015-16, it adopted the same course and sequence for Algebra 1, Algebra 8, and the Algebra Pilot, so the courses now are all the same.

The Algebra Pilot has had average class sizes of 19.3 students, about four less than Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 in the middle schools.


The racial makeup of Algebra 8 and Algebra 1 are different and not proportional to the District averages, said Mr. Marti. Algebra 8, nonetheless, is fairly racially balanced, perhaps more so than the Algebra Pilot.

The table below shows the percentage of students, by race, attending District 65, and who were enrolled in Algebra 1, in Algebra 8, and in the Algebra Pilot.

The report also says that there is disproportionality by household income. Fourteen percent of students taking Algebra 1 are from low-income households, compared to 58% taking Algebra 8, and 50% taking the Algebra Pilot.   

Student Achievement Overall

Mr. Marti presented data intended to show how the Algebra Pilot, Algebra 1, and Algebra 8 impacted student achievement. The District did this by measuring a) how much each student grew academically in math in seventh grade, and b) how much each student grew academically in math in eighth grade when they took the Algebra Pilot, Algebra 1, or Algebra 8. The District used a measure of growth called the Conditional Growth Percentile (CGP), which is “a student’s percentile rank for growth.

“A CGP of 50% indicates a student’s growth exactly matched the expected gains and that his or her growth exceeded that of 49% of students nationally,” says the report. “A CGP of more than 50% indicates a student’s growth exceeded expectations and a CGP of less than 50% suggests the student’s growth was below expectations.”

As an example, if a student has a CGP of 62%, the student grew more than 61% of the students in the nation, said Mr. Marti.

After determining the CGP for each student, the District determined the “average CGP” for the group of students taking Algebra 1, Algebra 8, and the Algebra Pilot for seventh- and eighth-graders. Significantly, the owner of the MAP test says CGPs should not be averaged to get a group average because it can lead to distorted results.The District, nonetheless, decided to average the CGPs because, they say, it was easier for people to understand, and the other analyses showed “similar” results. See sidebar.

The chart below was prepared by District 65 and shows that the average CGP was 62% for eighth-graders who took Algebra 1, 57% for eighth-graders in Algebra 8, and 63% for eighth-graders in the Algebra Pilot. The average CGPs are all higher than the expected rate of 50% for individual students.

The chart shows that the students who took either Algebra 8 or the Algebra Pilot showed a higher average growth rate in eighth grade than in seventh grade. In other words, their growth trajectory, on average, increased in eighth grade when they took Algebra 8 or the Algebra Pilot. In contrast, the data shows that the growth trajectory, on average, declined for students who took Algebra 1.

Student Achievement by Quartile

The report breaks out the data showing the average CGP for students taking Algebra 1, Algebra 8, or the Algebra Pilot, based on the quartile the students placed in at the end of seventh grade. (Again, NWEA says not to average CGPs to get a group average). The data shows:

• Students in the bottom two quartiles (Q1 and Q2) who took Algebra 8 and the Algebra Pilot made large increases in their average CGP between 7th and 8th grades. In addition, students in the bottom two quartiles had average CGPs above the national average in both Algebra 8 and the Algebra Pilot. No students who took Algebra 1 were in the bottom two quartiles.

• Students in the third quartile (Q3) who took Algebra 1 showed the largest increase in growth rates between 7th and 8th grades (38 percentile points), and showed the highest CGP in 8th grade.

• Students in the top quartile (Q4) who took Algebra 8 and Algebra 1 showed declines in their average CGP between 7th and 8th grades. When asked, Mr. Marti said one theory for this drop is that the eighth-grade MAP math test that is relied on for purposes of the analysis does not focus on Algebra, while Algebra 8 and Algebra 1 courses focus on Algebra. See sidebar. Another theory, he said, is that students in the top quartile taking Algebra 8 just missed out being placed in Algebra 1, and they may feel turned-off. Another possible explanation for the drop in Algebra 8 may relate to the effectiveness of differentiated instruction  to meet the needs of all students.

Overall, students in the bottom two quartiles have done about the same in Algebra 8 as they have done in the Algebra Pilot, even though the average class sizes of the pilot are lower.

Impact of Different Class Sizes

Peter Godard, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Data, told the RoundTable that the average class size of the Algebra Pilot is 19.3 students. The report indicates that the average class size of Algebra 1 is about 23.5 students, and for Algebra 8, about 23 students.

If Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 are combined in the middles schools and a support algebra class created, the District estimates that the average class sizes would be 24.4 at Chute, 26 at Haven, and 28.8 at Nichols.

There is no indication how the results would be impacted by these larger class sizes which would contain mixed achievement levels and require high quality differentiated instruction.

Addressing the Needs of Low-Performing               
     Students/A Support Class

 Mr. Marti’s report says, “Schools that have successfully de-tracked classes have done so carefully; they allocated considerable resources to low-ability students, including time and professional development for their teachers, with strong principal leadership and support from teachers.”

One recent meta-analysis found that some low-performing students may benefit by taking algebra earlier rather than later, but it says, "under-prepared students who are admitted to algebra do not fare well." The study also adds a caveat that "achievement gains occurred in settings where policies were accompanied by strong supports for struggling students, particularly more time for algebra instruction. We do not have strong evidence that universal algebra policies lead to achievement gains minus those strong supports." Algebra: A Challenge at the Crossroads of Policy and Practice, Review of Educational Research 81, no. 4 (2011) 453-492.

As part of the current proposal, administrators recommend that the District offer a support class, called Algebra Excite, to students whose seventh-grade spring math MAP scores indicate a high likelihood of repeating Algebra at ETHS. 

The support course would be offered in addition to the mixed-level Algebra 1 course, and include teaching a mathematical mindset, developing math practices and strategies, interventions to strengthen foundational gaps, peer tutoring (AVID), and a focus on executive function.

Students who enroll in the Algebra Support course would not be eligible to take one of their typical 8th grade courses, most likely foreign language. This would impact their course selection as freshman at ETHS.

Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said there would be one Project Excite class for every two Algebra classes, and assuming that two Algebra classes served 50 to 60 students, the Project Excite class would serve about 20 students.

The District also proposes to provide professional development, which would include Beyond Diversity/SEED equity training for Algebra teachers, as well as other training. The District has used materials prepared by the Pacific Education Group (PEG) for its Beyond Diversity Training.

Placement and Success at ETHS?

Mr. Marti said that 82% of the District’s eighth-graders are projected to be placed in geometry or above at ETHS next year. The report, however, does not break out data showing whether students in the Algebra Pilot are repeating algebra at ETHS at a higher rate than students who took Algebra 8. 

On June 5, several Board members asked for this placement data. Candance Chow said the original articulated goal of the Algebra Pilot five years ago was to increase the percentage of students who were able to take Geometry after they took Algebra in District 65. She said she wanted “to have fidelity to what we committed to,” and added, “I think the worst case scenario would be having kids still repeating Algebra at the same level at ETHS.”

When asked why the District did not present placement data, Mr. Godard said he had asked ETHS for the data and, “It hasn’t been their top priority.” When he asked again after the June 5 meeting, they said they could not get the data together within a week. ETHS also said they thought success in an ETHS course was the proper measure of achievement, rather than placement.

In June 2013, Board members asked for data showing how District 65 students were placed in freshman year at ETHS, but also showing how they performed in algebra, geometry and more advanced math classes at ETHS.

The report does not provide this information.

Non-Academic Issues

The report also considers non-academic impacts on a student. “While a common strategy, one unintended consequence of tracking is the perpetuation of class inequalities and segregation by placing a disproportionate number of students with low socioeconomic status and students of color in lower-ability groups,” says the report.

“The perpetuation of segregation and its connection to lower-ability groups can foster racial stereotypes about intelligence and academics,” and it can impact students “self-identity,” and “students in a lower track may start to self-label themselves as inferior to upper-track students.”

The report also cites research “that tracking does not greatly improve academic achievement as intended,” and “many researchers proclaim that any possible advantages of tracking are offset by the negative consequences.”

Future Evaluation

Mr. Marti said the District will monitor, refine and improve the new mixed-level Algebra 1 and Algebra Excite courses to ensure success for all students. He says the department will monitor the demographics of the Algebra 1 course; and they will monitor student growth, and survey data to ensure there is an increase in students’ reporting ambitious math instruction.

Ms. Chow and several other Board members urged the District to evaluate how students who took the mixed-level Algebra 1 class were placed at ETHS and how they performed in those classes in ninth grade and up.

Ms. Cohen suggested that the District assess the social and emotional learning of students taking the Project Excite class, to ensure those students did not feel marginalized. Several Board members supported this suggestion.

The Board’s Vote

Lindsey Cohen said, “I am conceptually behind the changes that you proposed.” She said, though, “I believe this has been a very divisive issue, and it doesn’t need to be.” She added it was only presented at the June 5 and 12 Board meetings, and said, “I ask when there’s potentially controversial items that we get the community together to both educate the community to help people see things from a different perspective, and, more importantly communicate with all stakeholders.”

Anya Tanyavutti cited Dr. Sean Reardon’s study that found that, as of 2013, white students, on average, were performing at the top in the nation, and the students of color were just below the national average. “We need a paradigm shift to see our school system as good when it provides opportunity and access to learning for every child,” said Ms. Tanyavutti.

“This corrective shift is to eliminate a delineation that is harming students and is unnecessary academically,” she added.

Ms. Chow noted, “Dr. Reardon also said the black students attending District 65 were performing, on average, better than 78% of the black students in the nation, so we are starting from a place where four-fifths of the school districts don’t perform as well for black students. We have a long way to go because we want them to get to the 100th percentile.”

Ms. Chow also said the Board had previously approved changes to the Algebra 8 curriculum, so that it had the same curriculum, the same sequence and pacing, and the same teachers as Algebra 1. This is not a situation where Algebra 8 offers a less rigorous curriculum or lower quality teachers than Algebra 1.

“In principle I agree with this goal,” said Ms. Chow. “My concerns have really been about effecting the change in a thoughtful way that ensures that we mitigate any possible negative consequence and that we engage the community because I think this is a first real step in our equity agenda, and it’s going to get more controversial from here. If we’re setting the right process and plan around engagement and bringing the community along here, that sets us up for better success in the long term.”

Ms. Chow added she was concerned about how the District will meet the needs of students with a wide range of preparedness in a single classroom. “In the pilot classrooms,” she said, “we have an average of 19 students and we’re seeing comparable results to the other programs. As we’re progressing it to go out, we’re looking at 25 to 29 students at Haven and Nichols. That’s a considerably larger class size. The level of differentiation and supports to ensure success for all kids, I think, is a heavier lift. I’m concerned about rolling this out now. My position is not that we don’t do this. I would prefer making it a decision for 2018-19.

Ms. Kartha said, “This is not a significant change,” indicating that all students are currently taking the same algebra curriculum, and teachers have experience teaching Algebra 1. In addition, she said, the placement practices for algebra were raised as an issue in the equity report presented to the Board on May 22. She said, “I’m not sure it’s fair to say while we wait for these families to understand the change and get on board with this, we ask another set of families to suffer.”

Joseph Hailpern said he appreciated the point about making the decision so late, and added, “I’m definitely concerned about the class size.” He said he supported using a template to assess whether a middle school was ready to implement the program in the fall, and if schools were not ready, they should wait until 2018-19 to implement the change. He said he also supported obtaining data from ETHS to assess placement and success of District 65 students at the high school.

He said, “This is a really good start for us as a Board. We’re talking about race. … I think it’s a really good decision moving forward. It will take a lot of work to monitor it and take care of it, but it’s a really good start.”

Sergio Hernandez said, “It heartens me to hear that, as a District, we are going to be bold and try to create a change. This is the first step.”

Picking up on a comment made by parent Andy Bezaitis, he said, “We really need to go back to preschool and to the very outset of a child’s academic journey.”

The Board voted, 5-1, to approve the recommendation. Ms. Chow cast the only no vote, and her vote was based on timing, the lack of community engagement, and concerns about effective implementation, rather than opposition to the program.

Next Steps

With the Board’s vote, Algebra 8 will be folded into Algebra 1 in at least one middle school in 2017-18, and in the remaining middle schools in 2018-19. Administrators have adopted a framework to measure whether a school is ready to implement the change in 2017-18, and if a school demonstrate readiness, the school can implement it in 2017-18, and if not, they will do so in 2018-19.

Administrators will decide by July 15 which school or schools will implement the change for the 2017-18 school year.

The District has already sent placement letters for students entering 8th grade in Chute, Haven, and Nichols.  The District plans to advise parents about the Board’s June 12 decision by providing information on its website by July 15, by sending a letter to families who will be affected by the decision no later than July 15, and by other means.

Some Issues Concerning the Data

The RoundTable asked administrators several questions about the data used to assess the Algebra Pilot.

First, the District uses the MAP math test to assess eighth-graders’ growth in Algebra 1, Algebra 8, and the Algebra Pilot. The RoundTable asked District 65 administrators if the MAP math test assesses student’s knowledge in algebra.  

Peter Godard, the District’s Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment, responded, “The MAP assessment tests algebra knowledge as well as knowledge in additional strands of math knowledge and skill aligned with common core standards. There is a score that specifically measures Algebra knowledge, but we did not use that in this analysis for two reasons. First, the range of statistics and norms available for that subtest are not as broad as the overall math score. Second, that subscore is based on fewer questions and is therefore less reliable for measuring growth than the overall math score.”

The District is thus evaluating the District’s algebra courses using a test that in large past assesses knowledge in non-Algebraic strands of math.

Second, the accompanying chart and table reflect “averages” of student Conditional Growth Percentiles (CGPs) to get an average CGP for various groups of students. Northwest Evaluation Association, the owner of the MAP test, says, “[Y]ou should not average the CGP to get the CGP of a group,” because “students in the same percentile can have different growth, and the difference in growth between two adjacent percentiles can be different depending on whether the percentiles are towards the middle (50) or the extremes (1 or 99).”

NWEA gives examples where averaging of CGP’s yielded erroneous percentile ranks that were off the mark by 12 and 22 percentile ranks, and concludes, “So we can see how averaging the CGP masks and flattens the difference between and within percentile ranks.”

When asked about this, Mr. Godard told the RoundTable, “We have chosen to present the conditional growth percentiles despite this limitation because it is much easier for readers of the report to understand. We replicated that the analysis is correct by looking at percent of students making expected gains, median conditional growth index, and average conditional growth index. All three methods confirm the results in the memo in that they show similar results in terms of cross-algebra-class comparison.”

NWEA says, “If you want to find the average growth for students in a school, then you can average the student CGI [the conditional growth index] scores.” At the RoundTable’s request, Mr. Godard provided the RoundTable with an excel worksheet showing the average CGIs for seventh and eighth grade students taking Algebra 8, Algebra 1, and the Algebra Pilot, and the average CGIs for eighth grade students, by quartile, taking Algebra 8, Algebra 1, and the Algebra Pilot.The District did not provide data showing the average CGIs for seventh graders by quartile. While the percentile rank of the average CGIs is the same as the average CGP in some instances, it varies by as much 6 or 7 percentile points in others.

Third, Mr. Godard told the RoundTable that the data presented does not include many students who were accelerated and who took algebra as sixth or seventh graders “because the purpose of the analysis is to compare 8th graders taking the course.” These students would likely have been placed in Algebra 1, and it is unclear whether the results for Algebra 1 would have been different had this group of students been included in the mix.

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