MIDDLETOWN — Why doesn’t the school district offer more opportunities for middle schoolers to take accelerated math programs? Why can’t students test out of eighth-grade math and enroll directly into Algebra I?
These concerns and others were voiced by parents during a recent workshop hosted by the district’s math department heads, meant to explain recent and possible future changes to how middle school math in Middletown is taught.
The Tuesday workshop was held in response to fears raised by parents that the district would be removing the option for students to take Algebra I in eighth grade, as part of changes it’s making to the math curriculum. However, the district has said it will continue to offer Algebra I as an enrichment course to eighth-graders at least through next year.
At the workshop, facilitators split parents into groups and tasked them with designing a way for all eighth-graders to take Algebra I in middle school, without having them skip previous math courses.
Sitting at tables, the parent groups came up with complex scheduling maneuvers, allowing students to fulfill sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade math requirements, as well as Algebra 1 — all while still in middle school.
“Here’s my wild idea,” said parent Jesse Torgerson, writing a series of numbers and letters — 6A, 6B, 7A — on a piece of paper, and drawing arrows to explain the concept. “If we’re talking about thirds of curriculum, you can divide the years up into third ‘chunks,’ matching these electives … and any kid, at any time, could jump into doing an extra math.”
But he acknowledged the scheduling would be a challenge.
Yvonne Daniels, the 6-12 mathematics supervisor for the district, said at the workshop that Beman Middle School teachers were asked to complete a similar task — redesigning the Algebra I pathway. Teachers said they could use an exam, state exam scores, or have students do additional coursework to determine which eighth-graders could enter Algebra I. They also suggested conducting a survey to see which students were interested.
To prepare these students to take Algebra I, the teachers suggested summer work through an online platform or an after-school math club. But they also noted there were multiple barriers to students having access to those options, including transportation, access to Wi-Fi, support from home and other responsibilities, like child care or sports.
“We’ve done summer. We’ve done virtual. We’ve done: ‘Here are lessons and do them on your own.’ We’ve done all three of them,” Daniels said. “None of them have worked well. That’s my opinion.”
Daniels also shared a timeline with parents, showing how the district approached this dilemma in recent years.
In the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, students entering eighth grade could enroll in a virtual “algebra readiness” course over the summer and test into Algebra I, which would replace eighth-grade math. Last year, however, the summer readiness course was not offered; instead, the district automatically placed all students who tested above grade level on state and district assessments into an Algebra 1 enrichment course that was taken in addition to eighth-grade math.
Daniels explained that, in order for a student to be ready to take ninth-grade math in eighth grade, they would require outside support and help.
“Just going to class every day and learning the progression of fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, you’re not going to be at a ninth-grade level,” she said.
Moving an eighth-grader to Algebra I means that student skips an entire mathematics grade level, Daniels said.
“So, no, that’s not a realistic goal in the seventh-grade class. We wish that we could do that for every single student, but it’s not a realistic goal right now,” she said.
According to the district website, eighth-grade math includes concepts like exponents, radicals, rational numbers, the Pythagorean Theorem and congruence, functions and linear equations and finding the volume of certain shapes. Meanwhile, Algebra I is focused on linear equations, geometric sequences, functions and graphing functions and interpreting data.
Daniels said while Illustrative Math — the curriculum the district currently uses — has an accelerated option, it requires compressing math lessons in order to move students through grade levels faster. She also noted the practice would constitute “tracking.”
The district is trying to move away from “tracking” students, meaning placing students on specific trajectories at a young age based on their skill level. In a recent statement on equity in mathematics, the State Board of Education discouraged school districts from tracking, saying it would “separate and label” students, resulting in “limited opportunities and lowered expectations.”
“We’re trying not to track students in fifth grade,” Daniels told a group of parents. “Tracking separates them and it puts people in categories where they cannot get to the abilities that they have. So some kids will be at one ability, and some kids will be at another, and then it doesn’t give them flexibility to shift.”
Currently, students are able to take an enrichment course that provides “project-based” applications of what they are learning in their regular class.
Kwastina Jackson, who teaches enrichment for seventh-graders, gave an example of a problem they might do: Designing a scale model of a tiny house. The students could build a 3D or 4D model of the house, or design the plumbing, but it had to fit within 400 square feet.
“What they’re doing is taking things they’re learning in their seventh-grade courses and expanding on it,” Jackson said.
But parents said this left students frustrated. One parent said her child was enrolled in both seventh-grade math and the seventh-grade enrichment courses, and got bored in both classes.
Daniels said she was concerned about having students skip grade levels without having support, and felt that fifth grade was too early to skip mathematical content.
“If I am a sixth-grade student and I’m really, really good, but I don’t have the extra support and I skip to eighth grade, then when I get to eighth grade, I’m no longer a really, really good student. Not because I’m not a good student, but because I missed so much,” she said.
Parents have also raised concerns in the past about how taking Algebra I in eighth grade forces students to miss an “encore” class — STEM, health or art. Daniels said during the meeting that the enrichment classes, which also require students to miss an encore class, are STEM based, so the students would still get that experience.
Daniel Long, a parent and research scientist at the UConn Neag School of Education, told CT Examiner he thought the district should offer a program similar to the Math Olympiad, where students work on problems in groups and then compete with other students internationally, as a way to motivate more students.
Other parents have more basic concerns, such as getting a permanent math teacher in their child’s classroom.
Kasia Lekarczyk, a parent of a sixth-grader, told CT Examiner that her child’s teacher had gone on maternity leave, and that the class’ long-term substitute recently left. In the past week, she said, her son has had three or four different substitute teachers.
Jessie Lavorgna, director of communications for the school district, told CT Examiner in a statement that the district “takes all concerns about the quality of teaching and learning seriously.”
“We encourage parents, guardians, and students to reach out to the school principal directly if they encounter any issues, such as a perceived lack of learning in this case,” Lavorgna said. “Open communication is foundational to our ongoing efforts to provide a seamless educational experience for all our students.”