On June 8, District 65 administrators provided an update on the District’s math acceleration policy. As has been the practice, math acceleration in the 2015-16 school year will be course-skipping (e.g., a fifth-grader will skip Math 6 and take Math 7). Starting in the 2016-17 school year, though, the District plans to accelerate students by compacting two years of math into one year (e.g., a fifth-grader will accelerate by taking Math 6 and Math 7 in one year).

Jesch Reyes, the District’s director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), explained, “By 2016-17, we’re moving to a system of compacting versus course-skipping so content is not missed.” With the transition to the common core state standards, he said, “Skipping an entire year can be very detrimental to kids down the line.”

By contrast, he said, compacting courses “will ensure that students will learn the most important topics and will more readily access advanced mathematics without having content gaps.”

Criteria to Accelerate

The District is using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, a District 65 Qualifying Exam, and teacher input to decide whether a student should be accelerated for the 2015-16 school year. 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.

Mr. Reyes added that MAP and the District’s Qualifying Exam are intended to measure a student’s preparedness not only in the course in which they are currently enrolled, but the course they would skip.

When the matrix was presented last April, several Board members asked how many students would be accelerated under the formula in the matrix. Mr. Reyes responded, “It’s difficult to quantify at this time.” Several Board members said they wanted to be kept apprised of how the new criteria were impacting the number of students selected for acceleration.

Concerns About Course-Skipping

Superintendent Paul Goren said one concern is whether students who have skipped a course in the past were prepared to do so. He questioned, “To what extent are our students really succeeding once they skip? To what extent are they succeeding in District 65 and 202?”

He added, “Our preliminary data analysis shows that 40% of our skipped students are not meeting expected gains on the MAP test.”

Mr. Reyes gave a breakdown of the MAP data, which differs significantly by the grade skipped. The data shows that only 13% of the students who skipped from Math 5 to Math 7 for the 2014-15 school year made expected gains on MAP, and on average those students showed negative growth in the 2014-15 school year.

Students who skipped other grades did better: 52% of the students who skipped from Math 6 to Algebra I, made expected gains on MAP; 57% of the students who skipped from Math 7 to Algebra I made expected gains on MAP.

On a nationwide basis, only 50% of the students who take MAP make expected gains. This is because the expected gain is the average annual gain of all students in the nation who start out the year with the same MAP score, so statistically, 50% score above the average and 50% below.

Mr. Reyes said the data indicate that there were a number of students who were accelerated last year who were not prepared to skip a course. 

Teachers expressed concerns that some students are being accelerated who are not prepared.

Claire Hiller, an eighth-grade math teacher for 20 years, said she was speaking on behalf of some members of the Math Acceleration Committee that worked during the 2014-15 school year to craft a proposal for appropriate placement for students. She said, “Over the years, teachers have become increasingly concerned about students who appear to be misplaced in advanced math classes. … We believe that all students need to engage in challenging mathematics, true problems, and what is referred to in math education as ‘productive struggle.’ When students skip courses, they do not necessarily have the foundation they need for success and their struggle becomes unproductive.”

She said some “bright young students tell us they feel like failures,” or “start to lose their passion for math,” and “begin to resist math.” Once students are accelerated, it becomes very difficult for them to change their placement. We hear sometimes from the parents of former students that feel their child was accelerated too soon, and it caught up with them later in high school.”

Paula Zelinski, president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) said, “We have noticed more and more kids are struggling.” She asked the Board, “What safeguards do you have in place for kids who are struggling.”

Students Accelerated for 2015-16

On June 5, Board members received Mr. Reyes’ memo summarizing initial math placement acceleration data for the 2015-16 school. The memo showed that a total of 37 students who took Math 4, Math 5 or Math 6 were found qualified for acceleration for the 2015-16 school year, compared to 193 last year. In addition, only 87 students who took Math 7 were found qualified for placement in Algebra I (viewed as an honors course), compared to 185 last year.

Dr. Goren said, “As we initially put out the data, we realized that based on past practice over time in the District, the number of those students who would have the opportunity to accelerate their advancement was not close to being equal in a couple of different places. Since we’re in the first year, we decided to actually spend a good part of the weekend looking at the data and asking ourselves and then doing the analysis, ‘How can we stay the course on a system that sets the threshold and allows us to place kids that makes sense for their success?’”

What administrators decided to do was to reduce the number of possible points on the Qualifying Exam by 12 points to account for teachers’ reports that students had inadequate time to complete the exam.  They then used  a revised percentage of points earned on the Qualifying Exam, weighted it the same as previously, and applied it to the overall score for student placement.

This change significantly increased the number of students who qualified for acceleration. The table below gives the average number of students accelerated or placed in the last six years and the number qualified to do so in 2015-16, using the revised data. 

Board member Candance Chow said moving from Math 7 to Algebra I was really not skipping a grade because the District does not have Math 8, but it is a placement in Algebra I, rather than Algebra 8.

Board Discussion

Board member Jennifer Phillips said, “With all due respect, moving toward consistency here, somehow over the weekend you’ve added another arbitrary component, and it’s in response to the fact that three different members of the Board on April 27 said that they didn’t want to see a dramatic shift or swing in how this program was operating without good data. I think there are a lot of questions here about what evidence you have to back up some of these assertions.

“I completely trust and believe teachers that get up here and say that some students who get accelerated are not doing well, but I know what information I asked for before this meeting and I’d like to see grades, not MAP scores.”

Ms. Phillips also suggested surveying students after they took an accelerated course to find out if they feel confident in math, whether they were challenged and whether they feel like they need help.

She also asked what is the best practice about when to compact learning.

Board member Richard Rykhus said, “We really don’t have data. We have a lot of anecdotes. What I heard this spring is we don’t want to make a significant shift that wasn’t based on data.”

Ms. Chow said, “We’ve been talking about conceptual gaps. … It would be very useful to understand what are the types of gaps that we’re seeing, when are we seeing them.”

Dr. Goren said the District planned to send letters to parents whose children qualified for acceleration based on the revised criteria, advising them that their children qualified and providing them a chance to opt out.

Claudia Garrison said, “Parents know if their kid didn’t pass under the original and they’re coming in under the lower standard, that they’re taking a bit of a risk there.”

Suni Kartha said she would like the Board to focus on improving instruction for students who did not qualify for acceleration and who were not on track to college and career readiness in math. Other Board members concurred this should be done.

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...