Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Math Placement Research

It is that crazy time of year, and I would guess that many of you are dealing with math placement decisions for your students. The following link has an interesting article about the effect that math placement has on certain students.

“More challenging middle-school math classes and increased access to advanced courses in predominantly black urban high schools may be the key to closing the racial academic achievement gap, according to a University of Illinois study. "


Here are a couple of quotes from the article that really made me think.

Students who take more advanced math courses in middle school lengthen their lead over time, and the positive school-related behaviors developed in those advanced courses lead to even higher achievement.

Being in a classroom where the expectations are higher, the course work is more rigorous, and the climate is more academic has huge effects on student effort.

These finding don’t surprise me because I have seen this happen with my students, but it is great to see research that backs up my instincts. So my questions are, “so what?” and “what now?”
I would also like to see the researchers' definition of "academic climate. " Obviously, this includes more than high expectations and rigorous coursework. I would think the climate would be the most challenging to change. I also think that we might have many different pictures of what a room with an academic climate looks like and sounds like.

What are your thoughts?

As an eighth grade math teacher, I am constantly dealing with pressure from the parents who want their children on the fast track in high school because they know that the article's findings are true. If a student starts on a more advanced track, then they will graduate more advanced. And don't more advanced courses look better to colleges and possibly result in better SAT/ACT scores? Won't these "advanced" students have more opportunities for academic scholarships and options for colleges? Not only is it an advanced track for high school--it also seems like it can become an advanced opportunity to life.

In my first year of teaching eighth grade math, the students were divided into classes based on test scores and teacher recommendations. The "lower" group took Pre-Algebra and the "higher" group took Algebra 1. Overall, students had similar placement in high school. My personal opinion is that some of the higher students were learning the more advanced material necessary, but they missed some of the basic skills that are staples of mathematics--skills the Pre-Algebra students had more opportunities to master. This past year, the classes were still grouped in the same way, but both classes started with Pre-Algebra and moved into Algebra 1. All students seemed to handle the course information in similar ways, which proved to me that all students have the abilities to learn the material.

I think the best way to make sure all students are learning the necessary information, and not just what's on the standardized tests, is to give all of them the opportunity to learn the same information. The difficult task is for the teacher to make the information understandable for them. I found that the "lower" group just needs some different approaches on my part (repeated explanations, extra examples, modeling, visuals, etc...).

I am curious to learn of other teachers' experiences and opinions on this matter. I often question if there is a better approach to making sure all of my students are learning and developing the math skills necessary to do well in high school (and life!).
I taught for years at a school where the average proficiency rating started at 28% in math. One of the biggest things we learned was connecting to their emotion with math and dealing with that first. We used and designs thematically based games to immerse them into a deep story. With that in place, we still kept the expectations high with positive results. But we found the student stayed engaged because they weren't encountering math with the same kind of experience they had had before. Our latest on-line application, called Ko's Journey, is the story of a girl living 10,000 years ago in ancient wilderness who encounter situations where she must use math, such as saving a wolf pup by mixing medicines in an abalone shell using ratios. Because it makes sense in the larger scope of the story, students seem to have a different emotion than they might otherwise. www.imagineeducation.org to check it out
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