Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Administrators at School District 65 say they wish to strengthen their math program and align the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards, but a conundrum appears to remain in how – and whether – some students should be allowed to take accelerated classes. District administrators would like to curtail the practice of allowing some students to skip a year of math, while some Board members point to the continued high performance of many of those students when they attend high school.

Present-Day Acceleration

At present, acceleration in math is designed for “exceptional, not merely excellent students,” according to a memo prepared by Suzanne Farrand, the District’s math coordinator.

“From what I’ve seen, kids in algebra in sixth grade are doing great at the high school.”– School Board member Tracy Quattrocki

Students up to grade three are assessed on a “case-by-case” basis, the memo said, and “beginning at the end of grade 4, the District systematically assesses students to identify candidates for acceleration.” The procedures are “most selective” at grade four and gradually expanded until being “completely open” at grade 7. District 65 currently offers two different algebra courses: Algebra 1 is offered to eighth-graders scoring above the 80th percentile, and Algebra 8 to students below that level, she said.

Ms. Farrand recommends limiting acceleration of students and instead streamlining as many students as possible into a newly redesigned algebra course that would take the place of the present two algebra courses. That is, rather than allowing some select few students to take accelerated courses, the District would like to implement what it calls “traditional acceleration,” collapsing the District’s four math courses – Math 5, Math 6, Math 7 and Math 8 – into three years so that eighth-graders can take algebra.

At the May 29 meeting of the Board Policy Committee Ms. Farrand said the District should decide on its definition of algebra before any new math courses are instituted. There are three definitions of algebra for the Common Core standards, she said: “a high school course, the capstone of accelerated traditional courses and eighth-grade algebra,” Ms. Farrand said.

The District seems to endorse the last two of these, grooming many students to take geometry in their freshman year of high school, promoting only a few students to above-grade-level classes, and funneling most eighth-graders into one algebra class.

“We finally have all District 65 teachers teaching the same algebra course. … [and] the high school has adopted the Algebra 1 textbook that we have adopted,” said Ms. Farrand. “The high school would love it if everyone would go [from District 65] to geometry.”

Skipping a Grade

“What is the sequence of timing for kids to take calculus in high school?” Board member Tracy Quattrocki asked.

“We think the first step is to take algebra in eighth grade,” said Ms. Farrand

“Is that the Common Core or us?” asked Ms. Budde.

“That’s us,” said Ms. Farrand. “It’s been a goal in this District for 20 years. Having the Common Core spells out very carefully what Algebra 1 is.”

Ms. Farrand said, “We’re beginning to see kids more capable at an earlier age.” But, she also said, “Skipping a year of math … is really for a small minority of students.”

Ms. Budde asked how students who skip Math 6 fare as compared with those who skip Math 7.

Ms. Farrand said, “Except for a small number of kids, acceleration is not a good idea.”

“From what I’ve seen, those kids in algebra in sixth grade are doing great at the high school,” said Ms. Quattrocki. She added, though, “I’m concerned that, from the material that was given to us, we are trying to limit acceleration. … If we start limiting the kids we test, we’re going to get the kids with the pushiest parents [in accelerated classes].”

Ms. Farrand said that what she meant was finding “less invasive, more sensitive ways” of identifying students with the potential to take accelerated classes. The District could look at other things beside the test scores, and could look for ways to identify talented math students at an earlier age.

“I have a problem with that,” said Ms. Quattrocki, “because I believe that how those kids do in ninth, 10th and 11th grades is better than teacher perception. We are data-driven. We need to see the data: Are kids taking four years of math [at the high school]? How are they doing? … Unless you come to us with data that says the kids aren’t doing well, limiting and discarding algebra placement is not a good idea.”

“Ms. Quattrocki, when you are looking at this, you are really focused on kids who are accelerated in seventh grade,” said Ms. Farrand. “The most important step is eighth grade. The real gain is eighth-grade algebra – 65 percent of our [eighth-graders] take algebra. My goal is to make sure that those kids who are taking algebra in eighth grade have a solid foundation to take BC calculus.”

Ellen Fogelberg, literacy director for the District, said there is a difference between expectations of parents and how kids see themselves in relation to mathematics. Ms. Farrand said, “We’re saying to 95 percent of the kids – we’re giving them the impression that they’re not good at math.”

“So you don’t accelerate?” Ms. Quattrocki asked.

“Only a small number of kids,” said Ms. Farrand – 2 to 20 percent.

“All we are saying is that every kid who should be accelerated is accelerated,” said Dr. Murphy.

A Few Bumps on the Path to
Algebra 1

The path from District 65 math to District 202 (Evanston Township High School) math diverges: District 65 offers two separate algebra courses, Algebra 1 and Algebra 8. Both of these courses offer students the opportunity to earn “algebra credit,” said Ms. Farrand.

Algebra 1 is offered to eighth-graders scoring above the 80th percentile and Algebra 8 to students below that level, she said.

Administrators recommend that acceleration to Algebra 1 placement at grade 7 or 8 be “limited” and acceleration from Math 5 to Math 7 – that is, allowing students to skip a year of math – be “abandoned.”

Ms. Farrand posed the question of whether it was necessary to have two courses. “If the standards are the same, is it necessarily important to have two courses? … Both have a focus on understanding and thinking and less [emphasis] on rote. The more challenging class is more abstract and requires greater precision and greater formality and procedure. The trajectory that mathematics has traditionally been on is that math becomes more abstract. … Algebra 8 students can solve equations but don’t understand what they’re doing. Algebra 1 students would know the abstract level of what the problem is but their skills may be not so polished.”

Ms. Farrand also said that the fact that math becomes more abstract “has been a criticism, and maybe students need to have more problem-solving and hands-on [engagement]. … The question is whether an algebra class designed for 14- and 15-year-olds should be taught to 12- and 13-year olds,” she said.

She recommended to the Policy Committee that “acceleration to Algebra 1 placement at grade 7 or 8” be “limited” and “acceleration from Math 5 to Math 7” – that is, allowing students to skip a year of math – be “abandoned.” Doing that would prepare the way to have most eighth-graders enrolled in a grade-level algebra class.

In response to a question by Board member Eileen Budde about whether there could be two levels of algebra, Ms. Farrand said, “I don’t think that is necessary or desirable.”

“Some teachers would tell you it is important to have honors-level and regular level,” said Ms. Budde.

Ms. Farrand recommended aligning the Algebra 1 and Algebra 8 courses, adopting the Common Core State Standard “accelerated traditional pathway” and ensuring that Algebra 8 is “an authentic algebra course.”

Although Ms. Farrand said she recommended eliminating the practice of allowing students to skip sixth-grade math and limiting the number of students promoted from seventh-grade math to Algebra 1, she said repeatedly that she was not “limiting acceleration.”

Board member Richard Rykhus and Ms. Quattrocki said, however, that reading her materials and recommendations made them believe that she was recommending a limitation on acceleration.

Accelerating Minority Students

“There is a structural problem in our acceleration,” said Dr. Murphy. “Very few African American and Latino students are accelerated. Students are promoted by skin color and socioeconomic status. … It is a school-wide problem.”

At present, almost 1,000 District 65 students take accelerated math classes: 13 fifth-graders take Math 6, 44 sixth-graders take Math 7 and five take algebra; 136 seventh-graders take algebra, two take geometry and one is “beyond geometry”; 573 eighth-graders take algebra, 112 take geometry and four are “beyond geometry.”

“What about Project EXCITE?” asked Ms. Quattrocki, referring to a program at Northwestern University for grade-school students.

“It’s been in a small number of schools and we hope it will expand,” Ms. Farrand said. “Their real goal is eighth-grade algebra. … [Those students’] scores are not higher than those of other students. The challenge is to add more reading skills … The challenge is reading and writing, not math.”

The question of parental involvement also arose. “We need parent focus,” said Ms. Budde, “parents who can monitor their kids.” A student who gets lost in third grade will likely find seventh-grade math tough, she added.

“We’re left with the challenge of those students whose parents can’t help them.” said Superintendent Dr. Hardy Murphy.

Dr. Murphy suggested that the District should offer supports for students whose parents cannot provide help or tutors.

“What’s next?” asked Mr. Rykhus.

“We need to do an analysis of data and historical data and look at the whole concept of acceleration. [We need to] look to see if there are Latino and African American students with the same profile as those [white] students that are accelerated,” said Dr. Murphy.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...