At the District 65 School Board’s Sept. 24 meeting, Board members discussed a pilot program established this year at King Lab and Bessie Rhodes magnet schools. The pilot collapses Algebra I with Algebra 8. Algebra I, referred to as an honors class, has historically been for students at or above the 80th percentile rank; Algebra 8 has been offered to all other students.

An article in the Sept. 27 issue of the RoundTable reported on that pilot, including administrators’ and School Board members’ comments about the pilot. See, “D65 School Board Discusses Pilot to Collapse Algebra I and Algebra.”

That article also contained a reference to a distinct issue, namely math “acceleration,” which District 65 defines as “grade-skipping, usually one year.” Acceleration practices set the sequence of math courses taken by a student and determine when a student will take algebra, geometry or more advanced courses, e.g. in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth grade.

The RoundTable article referred to a goal to”In general, limit acceleration to algebra placements at grades 7 and 8 in 2013-14″ that was contained in both a May 24 memo and a March 21 power-point presentation prepared for the Board’s Policy Committee by Suzanne Farrand, math coordinator for the District. After the RoundTable article was published, Superintendent Hardy Murphy and Susanne Farrand told the RoundTable that the District did not plan to limit acceleration to algebra placements at grades 7 and 8.

As a result, the RoundTable interviewed Ms. Farrand to gather information and to report on the District’s plan for math acceleration. She told the RoundTable that the District does not intend to limit acceleration to algebra placements at grades 7 and 8. She said, though, that she would like to assess students for acceleration at the end of fourth and fifth grades in a “less invasive way.” In addition, she would like to make fifth- and sixth-grade math more rigorous and demanding and eliminate the need for acceleration from Math 5 to Math 7 as a routine practice.

The Proposal for Math Acceleration

Up through third grade, decisions to accelerate students in math are made “on a case-by-case basis,” said Ms. Farrand. Beginning at the end of fourth grade, “the District systematically assesses students to identify candidates for acceleration.” The acceleration procedures are “most selective” at the end of grade four, still “very selective” at the end of grade five, “somewhat selective” at the end of grade six and “completely open” at the end of grade seven, she said.

End of 4th and 5th Grades The standard used to determine if students may be accelerated at the end of fourth and fifth grades is whether they are “in the top 5% locally” in math, said Ms. Farrand. For District 65, which has many high-performing students, this is a more limiting standard than if it were “the top 5% nationally.”

In the Spring of 2011, 97 fourth-graders were assessed for acceleration; only 12 (or 2% of the fourth grade class) were accelerated past fifth grade to Math 6.

At the end of fifth grade, 263 students were assessed; only 35 (5% of the fifth-grade class) were accelerated. Most of these students skipped past Math 6 to Math 7, but a handful were accelerated to take Algebra.

Ms. Farrand said she is concerned that the process used to select fourth- and fifth-graders for acceleration may hurt many students’ enthusiasm for math. She said she uses several different assessments and teacher input in making a decision to accelerate. Currently, a relatively large group of fourth- and fifth-graders are identified as potential candidates for acceleration and given a separate test. The vast majority are not selected to accelerate. “What that means is we select a few kids and discourage the large majority of kids. We’re suggesting to kids who aren’t selected they’re somehow deficient,” she said. “That’s really the problem I’m trying to solve.”

To address this issue, she said she wants to explore whether there is a “less invasive way” to get information, so that the District could identify students who are qualified for acceleration without raising expectations of a much larger group of students. One way, she said, may be to eliminate giving a separate test to students who are identified as potential candidates for acceleration, and perhaps use a test that would be given to the entire class, so a group of students would not be singled out. Under this approach, she said approximately the same number of students would be accelerated.

She added, though, she did not want to give an additional test to an entire class of students unless it would assist a teacher in forming instruction for all students.

Ms. Farrand also said she would like “to find a way to make the fifth- and sixth-grade curriculum more robust and demanding and the desire for acceleration less.” She said if fifth- and sixth-grade math is made more demanding, then the necessity of having some-fifth graders skip sixth grade and accelerate to Math 7 “will be eliminated.”

The path she is proposing for high-performing fifth-graders is that they take a more robust Math 6 class in sixth grade, Algebra I in seventh grade and Geometry in eighth grade. She adds, though, “There will always be kids” who accelerate from Math 5 to Math 7.

At a District 65 Policy Committee on May 29, several members of the committee expressed concerns that fewer fourth- and fifth-graders would be accelerated if the assessment policy changed, and also that the process may be less transparent. They urged the District to identify all fourth- and fifth-graders who are qualified for acceleration and who might be placed on a faster track so they can take advantage of all the math courses at the high school, including potentially an “Independent Study” course in senior year at ETHS taught by a Northwestern University professor.

Eileen Budde, a School Board member and member of the Policy Committee, told the RoundTable the Board has not seen student achievement data over the long term that shows whether students who accelerate take higher level courses at the high school and how they perform, whether students who skip Math 6 do better than those who skip Math 7, and whether some students who were accelerated need to repeat a high school course. “We need to see these data to know whether there is a problem,” she said. “Otherwise, there is no reason to consider limiting assessment for acceleration.”

“The District has worked hard to make the assessment process transparent and open to all,” Ms. Budde continued. “This may mean we assess more students than in the past, but that is a positive thing.  Maybe we need to put more resources into math instruction in the earlier grades so more students meet the criteria for acceleration. But there is no evidence that we should put the brakes on our students in 5th through 8th grades.”

Ms. Farrand told the RoundTable she was planning to analyze whether it was better to accelerate past Math 6 or Math 7. She added that her proposal for making acceleration decisions at the end of fourth- and fifth-grades is “only a plan,” and it may be changed as additional data is reviewed.

End of 6th grade: Rather than using percentile rankings for the end of sixth-grade acceleration decisions, Ms. Farrand said the District uses tests specifically designed to measure algebra readiness and whether a student is likely to get a “B” in Algebra I. A sixth-grader who demonstrates algebra readiness may skip Math 7 and take Algebra I in seventh grade. Taking Algebra I in seventh grade is a prerequisite to taking Geometry in eighth grade.

Ms. Farrand said, “I’m not proposing any changes,” to determine whether sixth-graders should be accelerated to algebra in seventh grade. At the end of sixth grade, 680 students (100% of the class) were assessed in the Spring of 2011, and 132 (or 19%) were accelerated. Almost all were accelerated to Algebra I, but a few were accelerated to Geometry and one to Beyond Geometry.

She said historically about 100 to 130 sixth-graders have been accelerated to take Algebra I in seventh grade. She said she anticipates a similar (or perhaps a higher) number of sixth-graders would continue to be accelerated.

End of 7th grade Ms. Farrand said 573 seventh-graders were assessed in the Spring of 2011 and all were accelerated to take either Algebra I (for students at or above the 80thpercentile) or Algebra 8 (for all other students) in eighth grade. Students who took Algebra I in seventh grade for the most part took Geometry in eighth grade.

The District’s pilot program at the magnet schools collapses Algebra I and Algebra 8. If the pilot goes well, the plan is to collapse Algebra I and Algebra 8 at all the middle schools. Ms. Farrand said last year, with the implementation of the Connected Math Project, “Algebra I and Algebra 8 are really the same course.” She said students in each course are covering the same topics, moving at the same pace, and taking the same year-end assessments.

She said collapsing Algebra I and Algebra 8, in her view, was not eliminating an “accelerated class” because “Algebra I was not an accelerated class.”

At the School Board’s Sept. 24 meeting, several Board members expressed concerns about collapsing Algebra I and Algebra 8, questioning whether a teacher would be able to meet the needs and challenge the full range of students in a class, particularly if classes had 30 students. See article in Sept. 27 issue of the RoundTable.

In addition to concerns expressed about collapsing Algebra I and Algebra 8, Ms. Budde says the District should open opportunities for more students to accelerate in math.

“Our District’s opportunities to accelerate during the pre-algebra years (5th, 6th, 7th grades) and to then take Honors Algebra and Honors Geometry have been very beneficial for the students that have taken advantage of them,”Ms. Budde told the RoundTable. “These experiences are often cited by students and parents as the first chance that some students have to be really challenged during their K-8 years.  ETHS offers very rich math and science curricula, competitive with the best schools everywhere. We should encourage even more of our students to aim for the high school’s most challenging courses.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...