As schools across the country continue to recover from the pandemic, math education is facing an inflection point.

By some federal measures and test score data, the biggest percentage drops in K-12 student math performance in American history have occurred in just the last few years. 

“The silver lining on these results is that they put a spotlight on what’s happened, but it’s not as if scores went from decent to bad; they went from horrible to even-more-horrible,” Sal Khan, founder of online education platform Khan Academy, recently told education news site The 74. “Pre-pandemic, about one-third of eighth-graders were proficient in math, and now one-fourth are proficient.”

Building bridges at the 42nd annual Evanston Township High School math department Geometry Bridge Contest last month. Freshman Kayla Strickland, center, won with the strongest bridge. Tora Gylling (left) and Emilie Viola were runners-up. Credit: Richard Cahan

The math downturn has hit Evanston hard, too. As the graphs below indicate, the percentage of District 65 middle schoolers scoring in the top half of all students nationwide in math on the annual Measures of Academic Progress test has declined significantly across all demographic groups.

And average scores in math on the test have also fallen steadily since the pandemic hit, as well.

“We really have to focus on math. We have to partner with our provider districts – both District 65 and our private parochial folks – to really look at, sequentially, what’s going on,” Evanston Township High School Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis said at a board meeting on Feb. 6.

“We’ve looked at the incoming cohorts that were disrupted by the pandemic, and we see that that’s going to have a long-term impact on math instruction at the high school.”

A system shift in District 65

While schools were facing this pandemic-fueled crisis, District 65 began a multi-year process in 2020 that ultimately eliminated most regular eighth grade geometry courses, instead launching a math sequence where all eighth-grade students take algebra, typically the class taken before geometry.

Currently, the district’s only geometry offering is a single class with about 15 students who arrived in middle school with advanced math skills.

Prior to the 2020 changes, students in the district would take a standardized test in fifth grade that determined most of their math skill level and sequence of courses for their middle school years. For years, honors algebra was also available as a class, as well as an accelerated sixth grade course that covered two years of math in one school year for select students.

Between 125 and 150 Evanston eighth graders across all middle schools typically took geometry every year under the old system, according to District 65 Director of Mathematics David Wartowski. 

National common core standards expect all students to complete pre-algebra in eighth grade, but high-scoring students in Evanston could join pathways leading to algebra, or even geometry, in middle school.

“We were making some high-stakes determinations in fifth grade that had long-lasting impacts, and it was a bit of what I would call a gatekeeping method,” Wartowski said. “In other words, these test scores were saying, ‘You belong here, you belong there,’ so you’d get families that were coming in for a retest on a Saturday, and I saw kids crying over this, and anxiety levels going up. And I’m like, ‘OK, this is not the mood we want around math.’” 

In search of an alternative, Wartowski and the district leadership team settled on the idea of what he calls a “low floor, high ceiling” model, where the instruction and lesson materials are easier for all students to access. 

Now, using that philosophy, all students take the same Math 6, Math 7 and algebra courses for each of the middle school grades, respectively, in a system that the district has called “accelerated learning for all.” 

The new math sequence for all District 65 middle schoolers. Credit: District 65

Like District 65, most school districts are moving away from “tracking” students, where each child is put into a certain classification, like “basic” and “honors” for math, according to math education and curriculum experts Michael Steele and Miriam Sherin.

Instead, schools like ETHS have switched to calling their classes “pathway to honors,” for example, to demonstrate how all students start in the same class and have the same opportunities to reach high-level courses. 

“The end result is more equitable opportunities for each and every student to deepen their mathematical learning, with attention to where students are in the moment and what they’re ready for next,” Steele said.

Summer geometry

But the question, then, is how does the school offer accelerated math pathways for students without tracking them or categorizing them by their skill level?

A school district can create accelerated pathways with limited tracking or testing of some students, as long as the district is intentional about its instruction and explicit about its goals for achievement, Sherin said. 

For now, District 65’s solution is that if all Evanston students finish algebra by the end of eighth grade, they will follow a sequence of classes at ETHS ending with the chance to take an Advanced Placement calculus course by the time they graduate, Wartowski said. 

Teachers greet students outside Haven Middle School on the first day of school in August 2021. Credit: Larry Gavin

ETHS, though, still offers college-level math, including a course on Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra, for students who take calculus their junior year, which would require taking geometry in middle school or at some other time before ninth grade. 

And the high school also has a class called Advanced Topics in Mathematics, for students who have already taken or are currently taking the Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra course. A Northwestern professor teaches that class at ETHS twice a week.

So, starting this upcoming summer, the high school is allowing incoming ninth graders to take a six-week, intensive summer geometry course, which will enable those students to enroll in Algebra 2 as freshmen.

The high school is in the process of inviting students to take that summer class based on their test scores or recommendations from middle school teachers, though interested students and families can reach out directly about the possibility of taking it, according to ETHS Math Department Chair Dale Leibforth. 

Leibforth said he expects at least two or three sections of the class this coming summer, depending on the ultimate demand and enrollment, which could be well over 50 or 60 students.

“We never recommend that a student takes a full course during the summer. You’re not going to get the same experience you would get having like 180 days – or, in our block schedule, 90 days – with a teacher,” Leibforth said. 

“But in this particular case, we’re presented with an option of how do you ensure that we have a group of students that can take Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra at the high school?”

Although the compressed class is not ideal, ETHS does not expect any issues with those students having gaps in math skills, and they should still get all the required training in geometry that other students do, Leibforth added.

Other options for acceleration

District 65’s website and recent math reports acknowledge that some students may need to take their own math pathway if they are far ahead in their learning. The district and ETHS presented four potential options for those students:

  • Summer geometry
  • Dual enrollment, where freshmen at the high school take both geometry and algebra 2 at the same time
  • Independent study in middle school
  • Grade skipping

Wartowski expects about 100 or so students per year to take geometry before high school using one of these new options, though he will not know the exact number until the first summer geometry course is complete. 

The flow chart below shows the potential math sequence options for an incoming freshman at ETHS. The bottom pathway would require taking geometry in the summer before ninth grade.

ETHS also offers two sections of geometry for about 40 eighth graders, where students can take the class in the morning, and then get to their respective middle schools for the rest of the school day. 

Up until 2020, District 65 allowed eligible students to choose between taking geometry at their home middle school or at ETHS, according to Wartowski. About 80% of those middle schoolers took the class at their own school, he said.

But three years ago, the district stopped offering that option due to transportation and tuition costs, along with declining enrollment. Since then, those ETHS geometry classes have been reserved for students at private and parochial schools that do not offer geometry.

But any family can register a student as homeschooled in any given subject, which would allow advanced District 65 students to take that ETHS geometry offering in eighth grade, essentially by partially enrolling at both the high school and their middle school.

“We could care less whether our son is in geometry or not,” said Kristie Higdon, a parent of a District 65 eighth grader who is taking the ETHS geometry class. 

“But the whole reason we have him in that class is we wanted him to be challenged. We didn’t care if he was challenged in any form of math, whether it be algebra, pre-algebra or just logic. We just wanted him to be challenged, and he was not challenged at District 65.” 

Engagement and rigor

Along with Higdon, several Evanston parents said they did not necessarily have a problem with a change in the teaching philosophy of math, but they have concerns about the quality of student engagement and class rigor in math.

Sydney Blattner and Liz Hansen, for example, two parents who both have children in middle school, said they want to see more of an effort to meet children where they are, whether that’s behind, on track or ahead. 

Putting all students into the same math class fails to recognize that everyone learns at a different pace and needs their own support and structure, they said in separate interviews with the RoundTable.

Currently, District 65’s new lesson plans offer differentiation for students through a period at the end of every class called “What I Need” (WIN) time. During those 20 minutes, students can pick and choose, on their own, between three options: pause and build, more practice, and deeper dive. 

Teachers are supposed to roam around the class during that time and provide extra support to any students needing help while working on the set of problems they chose, according to Wartowski.

The chart below shows a breakdown of the percentage of District 65 students choosing each option in 2021.

Credit: District 65 data

And in the two graphs below, one can see how, while most students reported feeling engaged and challenged in math recently, students with the highest MAP scores in math showed a significant uptick in feeling unchallenged last school year, according to district surveys. 

District 65 always has students who are jumping ahead in math in elementary school for all sorts of reasons, and those children should be accommodated in middle school as well, Blattner said. She and others also reported that the differentiation models being used in the classroom do not seem to be coming to fruition.

“They [the district] are telling a lot of parents that we’re going to go for equality, not for equity. We’re going to have everyone in the same math class, regardless of where they’re at,” Hansen said. 

“I was not asking for my child to skip a bunch of grades so she could take Multivariable Calculus. I wanted the math instruction to be differentiated in some way so my child could be challenged in math.” 

But District 65 said the solution is not going back to the old system of tracking and dividing students into subcategories based on skill and performance.

Having multiple different tiers of math instruction in the past led to a school environment of racially segregated classrooms, according to Nichols Middle School algebra teacher Tawana Stiff. 

“We really tried to dismantle this system that was resulting in racially separate classrooms,” Stiff said. “One of the challenges that people can face when you’re not tracking is you have such a wide range of where students are at, and that can be a challenge. But I also think that even when you’re teaching advanced classes, you still have a wide range of learners.” 

So the question then becomes, as Wartowski put it, how do you appropriately engage and challenge all students without separating or dividing them into different categories and classrooms? 

Solutions moving forward

In an ideal math class, students are given tasks that require deeper thinking and really wrestling with a concept or a problem, especially through discussion with classmates and a multipart question, for example.

“You want a task that is rich enough to provide opportunities for students to think and reason, tasks that are considered ‘high cognitive demand’ as opposed to tasks that primarily rely on memorization,” Sherin, the math expert, said. 

Augustus Roberts Iorio is shown at Invention Convention 2022 at Nichols Middle School. Credit: Wendi Kromash

In the most recent Illinois 5Essentials Survey conducted in the spring of 2022, all three Evanston middle schools – Nichols, Chute and Haven – received a score of 99 out of a possible 100 in the math instruction section. 

Those high ratings suggest the district is doing a good job at promoting discussion and collaboration in math classrooms. But the three middle schools also got a “neutral” score, around 50 out of 100, for classroom rigor.

Those numbers indicate an improved classroom experience for most students, but ongoing issues with adequately challenging all students equally, which requires striking a balance between tasks that might be too hard or too easy. 

“There’s this narrative that this is all a zero-sum game, and if someone else is getting more, then I’m getting less,” but that’s not the case, Wartowski said.

“It’s true that we as a district tend to isolate students who are historically marginalized [to provide support]. There’s no doubt that that is important to us,” he said. “Now, when we focus on these students, and seek to understand, ‘How can we make their learning experience better? How can they be more successful in school?’ It turns out that the answers serve all students.”

Wartowsi said the “low floor, high ceiling” model benefits all learners.

“So, my white children with no special learning needs will do vastly better in these classroom environments that I’m describing,” he said. “We haven’t hurt person A to help person B. I would want the Evanston community to understand that.”

Ultimately, the effect that the new approach in District 65 math will have on students long-term remains to be seen. One key step in the evaluation process will occur as both school districts review the performance of the geometry courses offered this summer for the first time.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. I have many problems with the current “equity” issue. I’ve always thought equality meant giving everybody an equal opportunity to achieve.

    As an interesting riff on this topic, I recommend Kurt Vonnegut’s short story from 1961(!) Harrison Bergeron. In his world of 2081 everyone IS equal. See how it is accomplished.
    Mary Brugliera

  2. Equity, like so many other political platforms, looks good on paper. In practice, the end result is always the kneecapping of any achievement and differentiation, bringing every student down to the lowest level and inhibiting any and all creativity and achievement. No other nation does this. Making our students, the next generation, intellectually stunted will only hurt America’s ability to compete in the global market.

  3. Predictably, removing educational opportunities has lowered both the ceiling AND floor of student engagement and mastery of the subject matter. Across the board, every student’s educational potential has been shrunk rather than grown. Our educational professionals need to acknowledge this and make adjustments to provide actual progress. Looking at other successful school districts demonstrates that adding rather than subtracting opportunity will make a positive difference for our community.

  4. There are not that many students who make it all the way through multivariable calculus at ETHS in the current pathway (I have a recent grad). I am sure that there will still be opportunities for those accelerated students, even with this minor curriculum change. We need to focus our resources on getting everyone’s math skills up to par, not just the 50 or 100 students who take geometry in 8th grade. I think the district is making the right decision. Having more students ready to tackle geometry in 9th grade is more important than catering to a few students who are accelerated. Those students can still take dual enrollment classes at Oakton or the summer school geometry program if they really want to accelerate to finish AP calculus by the end of Junior year. Just as an aside, my student took AP calculus senior year, was still accepted into a really great school and is majoring in a math related field. He did not take geometry until freshman year.

  5. Oh god. Common-denominator math instruction is a train wreck. (having witnessed it at a much higher level than middle school I can’t imagine the magnified badness over time)

    People at all levels of mathematics need to have the opportunity to be challenged, not coddled. We all know that the upper echelons of STEM fields have issues with demographics, and it is extremely unfortunate, but making some judgemental hogwash argument about eliminating discrimination, by not having a clear path for options to take advanced math classes (for anybody) is just a crude judgemental bludgeon.

    This country needs MORE excellence in STEM fields. I fail to see how a desire for increased basic competence, even remotely addresses this issue. If somebody shows clear evidence of excelling there should be a clear and simple path to follow in D65 during a school year. It is their responsibility to offer this pathway, and it is the student’s/parent’s responsibility to decide to take this path or not. Offering a summer class of dubious quality and an accelerated timeline is not the solution….

    Summer school…good grief.

  6. Thank you Roundtable for this thorough overview. As a parent of a D65 8th grader and an ETHS 11th grader I haven’t yet fully grasped the changes and this article explains everything while fairly considering all sides.

  7. Evanston School District 65 is in a “difficult “ position. The article states that “ before 2020 students in 5th grade would take a standardized test that determined most of their math skill level and sequence of courses for their middle school years” “This would mean honors algebra as well as an accelerated 6th grade course covering two years of math in one year”. “Now District 65’s new lesson plan offers differentiation for students with a WIN time. WIN is the last 20 minutes of class time during which a student can “pause, practice or dig deeper”. The teacher is supposed to roam around providing support. The article reports, however, that the differentiation models being used do not seem to be coming to fruition So our school district is stuck. They don’t want to track so they are left with no solution that works

  8. As a former member of both the District 65 and District 202 Boards of Education, collaboration between the two districts was always at the top of my agenda. I thought that maybe if we could do enough of this, we wouldn’t need the drastic remedy of consolidation. The facts laid out in this article convince me that I was wrong. This picture of District 202 having to tie itself into knots — Geometry in *Summer School*? Having freshman take Algebra 2 and Geometry *at the same time*? — because it can’t get a functioning pipeline with District 65 for students who are up for more challenging math is appalling. This must be set right, and if it can’t be done at the administrative level, then maybe it has to be done by the community.
    Also, this article references District 65 math classes concluding with 20 minutes of “What I Need (WIN) time,” where students self-identify what they need. Shouldn’t *all 60 minutes of a class period* be for what the students need? And shouldn’t our *educators* be identifying what those needs are?

  9. As has happened in Dist 65 for years, the attempt to provide equal opportunity for all students, and to provide a boost for those who might be behind or not as advanced as others, has gone seriously awry.
    I’m all for equity and for challenging all students. That is an important task for educators. But it’s also necessary to recognize that it may be impossible to adequately teach all kids math in one classroom when some may be below grade level and some are way above it. That level of differentiated instruction seems like an impossible task.
    it’s one thing to try to engage students in more advanced approaches to literature, reading, and writing, by including higher achieving students and somewhat lower achieving students in the same middle school literature/language arts classrooms. The discussion level might be more complex and engaging for all.
    But math skills are different, and the advantages of including students at all levels of achievement in the same class just don’t make sense.
    If serious efforts, with excellent and finely tuned teaching, are put into bringing up some of the lower end student achievement and helping them move forward at a quicker pace, they might develop the capacity to advance quickly and be more engaged in the process.
    But it’s not really fair to the highest end students to leave them in classrooms where they are not challenged, and that happens way too frequently.
    Dist 65 has failed at providing equity for all for generations, and sadly, it doesn’t appear to be getting better by insisting that all students be taught in the same classrooms, assuming the teachers can adequately reach the lowest achieving students while also challenging the highest. In that model, everyone loses.