On March 31, the District 65 School Board discussed a proposal that would effectively reduce the number of students who are accelerated in math.  Acceleration practices determine when a student will take algebra, geometry or more advanced courses, e.g. in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth grade.

The new requirements were recommended by a District 65 Ad Hoc Committee composed of teachers in the fourth- through eighth-grade levels.  

Most School Board members expressed concerns about the proposal. Several Board members questioned why the criteria should be changed without any evidence that the current acceleration policy was having any harmful effect on students. Others felt that changing the criteria would have the effect of reducing the number of minority students and girls who are accelerated in math. Still others opposed changing the criteria because they were concerned that high-performing students would not be challenged in their grade-level classes through differentiated instruction.

The Current Criteria 

Historically, the District has considered whether to accelerate students in kindergarten through third grades on a case-by-case basis. Very few students in those grades have been accelerated.

At the end of fourth grade, students scoring at the 90th percentile locally have been considered for acceleration. 

At the end of fifth through seventh grades “all students” have been considered for acceleration. The procedures used to determine whether students are accelerated, though, vary by grade level.

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, Suzanne Farrand, math curriculum coordinator, told the School Board in the fall of 2012.

According to a memo titled “Acceleration Process for 2013-14” posted on the District’s website, approximately 15% of seventh-graders are accelerated to take algebra in seventh grade.

Data presented by Ms. Farrand at the March 31 Board meeting reflects that the percentage may be higher. This year, she said, 144 students are “enrolled in algebra before eighth grade,” which means that about 20% of the District’s students are accelerated to take algebra before eighth grade – which could mean they take it in either sixth or seventh grade. 

Algebra must be taken in sixth or seventh grade in order to take geometry in seventh or eighth grade.

The New Criteria

Under the new criteria proposed by the ad hoc committee, students completing fourth through seventh grades would need to “consistently score at the 95th percentile locally on at least two recent administrations of Spring MAP (including April 2014) in Number Sense and Algebra strand” to be considered for acceleration.

The phrase “at the 95th percentile locally” means a student must score at or above 95% of the students in their class at District 65, or in other words, the top 5% of their class at District 65. Because District 65 has many high-performing students, this is a much stricter standard than using the 95th percentile on a statewide or national basis.

If a student meets the threshhold to be considered for acceleration, the decision to accelerate the student would then be based on specified tests, a teacher’s analysis and recommendation, and a survey completed by the student.  Placement recommendations would be checked centrally for consistency across the schools.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the new policy would be a reduction in the number of students taking algebra as seventh-graders. Under the current acceleration policy, about 15% to 20% of the students take algebra in or before seventh grade. Under the new policy, only 5% of sixth-graders would be in the pool of students considered to take algebra in seventh grade.

Parental Input in the Decision

School Board member Richard Rykhus asked about “the place of parents in the acceleration process.”

Ms. Farrand responded, “In the ad hoc acceleration committee, the leaders really felt they could frame their judgments reflecting what the parents were saying and thinking and doing, but there is no plan at this stage at this time to explicitly include a parent component in the acceleration process.”

Mr. Rykhus responded, “I would ask the Board and the administration to reflect on that. The parent component, I think, is critical. … I would challenge us to look how we explicitly include parents in the process in the decision around acceleration.”

Board president Tracy Quattrocki said, “I agree with that very much.”

Eileen Budde, a member of the Board, said as a high school math teacher she does a bit of “gatekeeping” as to whether kids go to AB or BC Calculus. “I really think [parents’] input is important because they bring information about a student’s life at home and their feelings about math that I might not have been aware of. … I think it’s an oversight not to include parent input in the process. That’s an important thing we need to look at.”

Tightening the Criteria

Board member Candance Chow said the District has made a series of changes to the acceleration criteria in the last few years, and the Board does not have data showing the impact of those changes. She said, “We want to be sure we have a diverse set of students who are being accelerated. … I am concerned that by tightening the screws on acceleration we are reducing the opportunity for minority students to be accelerated, for girls to be accelerated. I want to understand what the impact of these changes has been.”

Ms. Quattrocki pointed out that one of the reasons the Board loosened up the criteria for acceleration in prior years was to increase the diversity of students being accelerated. “We cast a wider net so that more minority students and more girls would be given the opportunity to be tested” for acceleration, she said.

Ms. Quattrocki also said there was no evidence that the District’s acceleration practices have had any harmful effect on students. “If you tighten the screws, the implication is they’re not doing well. But we’ve never seen data to suggest that.” If kids who are accelerated are doing well, she said, “I don’t know why we would abandon it.”

Board member Suni Kartha said, “Maybe we kind of are tightening. Maybe we should be tightening the screws on acceleration because of changes that are happening, particularly with the common core” which, she said, is a more rigorous math curriculum.  She added, “Acceleration is not necessarily the best thing.”

Ms. Kartha added, “We’re focusing a lot on acceleration. What I really think we need to be focusing on a lot is what’s going on with differentiation.”

 “I don’t think acceleration and differentiation are mutually exclusive,” said Ms. Quattrocki.

 Ms. Chow said restricting the number of students who are accelerated may make it more difficult for teachers to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs for all students. She said if the District tightens the criteria, it would keep high-performing students in their grade-level classes and those students would then need to be challenged through differentiated instruction.

“We’re placing a greater burden on differentiation, and we do not have evidence that differentiation is working consistently and pervasively the way we want it to,” she said.

She said she would not want to tighten the criteria for acceleration unless differentiation were improved to challenge high-performing students. “What I’m saying,” said Ms. Chow, “Don’t redesign the acceleration that’s in place until we are confident that differentiation can serve those students.”

While adhering to her position on acceleration, Ms. Kartha agreed the Board needed to have a conversation on differentiation and figure out “what we need to do in the classroom to make that more robust and more effective.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Ms. Farrand said, “I too am troubled by this notion of making my funnel narrower. However, I’m also cognizant of the fact that best practices in identifying advanced learners is exactly how it states. If you don’t look at everybody, you look at your best prospects.”

Ms. Farrand said she was thinking about whether there would be a way to narrow the number of students considered for acceleration, but be more flexible.

Ms. Quattocki said, “I would not recommend moving” to the new criteria, citing the rigidity of the 95th percentile and the lack of any evidence that the current policy is having any harmful effects.

Mr. Rykhus said, “I wholeheartedly agree.” As did Ms. Chow.

While no formal vote was taken, it appears that the current acceleration policy will not be revised absent further review by the Board.

When the School Board discussed the Algebra Pilot in June 2013, several Board members urged administrators to explore ways to increase the achievement of minority students in the early grades. On March 31, administrators suggested the following:

• Harness initiatives, such as the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative, to broaden the community’s understanding of college and career readiness in mathematics for 21st century learners. Focus on more application and problems based learning so children feel that math is relevant and enjoyable.

• Explore ways to enable math coaches to provide more extensive support to teachers.

• Explore ways to provide math interventionists at the building level, who could deliver early interventions and serve as a mentor to exceptionally high achieving students.

• Explore using math specialists to teach math at the fouth- and fifth-grade levels.

• Implement common core aligned text books as soon as feasible.

Board member Richard Rykhus said many of the suggestions “are really good, and as we look to the future those are some longer-term activities that we can look to engage in.”

Eillen Budde, a Board member and a high school math teacher, said increasing coaches and talking through lesson plans “is so important” and is a “great idea.” She added, “I also think the idea of having intermediate grade math specialists is intriguing.” She said the math curricula was getting more demanding and having specialized math teachers for fourth and fifth grades was a good idea to explore.

Board member Candance Chow suggested the District invest additional resources in programs, such as Project Excite, at early grade levels “to better prepare and expand the group of kids who can really achieve at these high levels. I think that’s what we all want.”

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...