Jesch Reyes, District 65’s STEM Director, laid out proposed changes in the District’s math acceleration program at the April 13 School Board meeting. A key change will be that acceleration will shift from skipping a course to compacting learning. The placement criteria will limit the number of tests used and establish a “sliding-scale matrix.”

Board members generally thought the proposal represented a positive step forward, but raised concerns about whether the new placement criteria were more restrictive than in the past and how the needs of low-performing students will be addressed.

Mr. Reyes said a committee, composed of 14 fifth- through eighth-grade math teachers, developed the baseline recommendations for the changes. District 65 senior leadership, middle and magnet school principals, colleagues at Evanston Township High School, and a community focus group provided input, he said.

Course Skipping to Course Compacting

District 65 has historically accelerated well-prepared students in math to support their academic needs and to place them on the path to take advanced mathematics courses at ETHS, said Mr. Reyes.

Currently, math acceleration is defined as “course-skipping,” said Mr. Reyes. Course-skipping has been a viable practice because a large portion of the math content under the previous Illinois Learning Standards in Mathematics has overlapped from one course to the next, he said.

The new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) that are being implemented in the District are “really a big game changer,” said Mr. Reyes. “It really forces us to think about the sequence of our courses.”

The CCSS-M “raises the bar of student expectations, and requires more emphasis on deep, conceptual understanding and the application of mathematical practices,” said Mr. Reyes. The problem with course-skipping, he said, is that students may have gaps in their learning and conceptual understanding. These gaps, in turn, may create problems when the students take subsequent math courses.

To address this concern, the “guidance” accompanying the CCSS-M recommends that school districts that desire to accelerate students do so by compacting learning, rather than skipping courses.

The guidance says, “…districts are encouraged to have a well-crafted sequence of compacted courses…, which means to compress content, which requires a faster pace to complete, as opposed to skipping content.” The guidance adds, “Decisions to accelerate students into the CCSS for high school mathematics before ninth grade should not be rushed…it is not recommended to compact the standards before grade seven.”

Mr. Reyes proposed that the District maintain the status quo for next year, the 2015-16 school year, and that it implement compacted learning for the 2016-17 school year.

For the 2016-17 school year, students who have completed fifth grade may be accelerated to take a course in sixth grade that compacts Math 6 and Math 7 into one year. This group of students would advance to Algebra 1 in seventh grade and Geometry Honors in eighth grade.

For fifth-grade students who are not accelerated, they would take Math 6 in sixth grade, and they would be provided an opportunity to take Math 7 in the summer after completing sixth grade. If they demonstrated mastery of the material, they could take Algebra 1 in seventh grade and Geometry Honors in eighth grade, said Mr. Reyes.

The proposal provides that acceleration “begins in sixth grade.” Recognizing there are some “truly exceptional” students, acceleration at earlier grade levels will be considered on a “case-by-case basis.”

Most Board members appeared to favor compacting. “I think compacting makes a lot of sense,” said Candance Chow. “I would reiterate we should have as many on-ramps [to accelerate] as we can,” – so, for example, if a student was not accelerated at the end of fifth grade, he or she would have an opportunity later on.

Ms. Chow added there should be a set process to determine whether a student would be accelerated on a “case-by-case” basis.

Proposed Acceleration Path for 2016-17

D65 Mathematics Placement Criteria

Beginning this spring, the number of tests used to decide whether to accelerate students will be drastically reduced, said Mr. Reyes. The District will use two tests and teacher input. A sliding-scale matrix provides a scoring system to combine the results of the two tests and the teacher input and to determine if a student meets a minimum total score to be accelerated.

One of the tests is a District 65 qualifying exam, that will assess students’ command of the CCSS-M, said Mr. Reyes. It will contain 20-25 items and be administered in 60 minutes.

The second test is the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which has been given to District 65 students for many years. The MAP scores that are in line with the minimum benchmark to accelerate correspond to the 98th percentile in fourth grade, the 91st percentile in fifth grade, the 94th in sixth grade and the 88th in seventh.

Three Board members asked how many students would be accelerated under the new criteria, and if it would represent an increase or decrease from prior years. Mr. Reyes said, “It’s difficult to quantify at this time.” He said the criteria are designed to identify students who are prepared to accelerate.

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said she had not seen any evidence that students who had been accelerated in the past were struggling at ETHS, and added that the District should not tamper with something that is not broken.

She asked that the Board be kept apprised of how the new criteria were impacting the number of students selected for acceleration. Board Vice-president Richard Rykhus concurred with this request.

Mr. Rykhus asked if parental input would be considered in deciding whether to accelerate a student. Ms. Quattrocki said she thought that taking parents completely out of the process was not the correct approach.

Parents do have the right to appeal a decision denying acceleration.

Parents from the group Math Matters urged that the District consider ways to make compacted courses available at earlier grade levels.

Low-performing Students

Historically, relatively low percentages of African American and Hispanic students have been accelerated in math. In addition, higher performing students have been placed in an Algebra 1 course, and others in Algebra 8. Mr. Reyes noted that “the new course sequence does not immediately address the challenge of equity and stratification.”

One strategy the District has piloted during the last three years to address these issues is an Algebra 1 Pilot implemented at King Arts and Rhodes magnet schools. In the pilot, students with mixed achievement levels are taught Algebra 1 in the same class.

The pilot has shown some encouraging results, said Mr. Reyes. He made two “high-level” observations: high-achieving students achieve at high levels in any class; and average and low-achieving students achieve highest in mixed-level classes.

In previous meetings several Board members said that comparing how students in the Algebra pilot at the magnet schools did versis students in the middle schools was not a fair comparison because the class sizes at the magnet schools are much smaller than those at the middle schools and the students at the magnet schools, on average, start out at higher achievement levels. Another concern was that students in the bottom quartile in the pilot were not moving up.

On April 13, Mr. Reyes said a deeper analysis of the data was necessary to determine if the heterogeneous grouping of students in the pilot increased the achievement of lower-achieving students, and if it had any impact on the achievement of higher-achieving students.

Mr. Reyes said the Algebra I Pilot would continue next year at King Arts and Rhodes, but that it would not be expanded until his evaluation was complete.

Board member Suni Kartha referred to the concerns Board members had previously raised about the Algebra pilot, and asked if a deeper analysis of the data would address those concerns. She asked if the pilot should be expanded so the District could obtain additional, reliable data that it could rely on.

Ms. Reyes said he thought a deeper analysis of the data was necessary and that it would enable administrators to consider what the next steps will be.

Ms. Kartha also cautioned, “We’re creating a system of tracking that ultimately may be antithetical to reducing the achievement gap, which is really what we want to do.”

Several Board members said that creating a sixth-grade course that compacted learning was recommended as the best way to accelerate students, that the compacted course was not “tracking” in the sense the word is often used, and that it and Algebra I would be the only courses provided in District 65 that are based on academic performance.

Board member Omar Brown asked what other strategies were in place to address equity besides the pilot.

Mr. Reyes said, “We have to make sure we’re continuing to engage all learners and providing high-quality instruction for all students in every class. That’s really how we start building the equity agenda.”

Assistant Superintendent of Schools John Price added that the Math Fluency Tutors Program, in which volunteers help struggling students to develop math fluency in pre-K through second grade, is part of a broader strategy that focuses on building early math skills.

Several Board members reiterated that the District needs to help students in the earliest grades so they would be prepared to take accelerated classes later on.

Ms. Chow said, “We need to be doing a better job to prepare all our students to play on the playing field once they get to eighth grade.”

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...