Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's a parent to do?

Maybe you thought that since your student was getting good grades in math, you could relax. The experiences of many parents who have signed the CPR-Math petition should at least make you wonder:
"My husband was amazed to discover that our daughter who has consistently received A’s in Math courses and can not do long division as a freshman in high school."
"My child is in the gifted program, but didn't know basic arithmetic."

"My children received A's & B's but are now 2 years behind their peers in districts in which this math isn't taught."

What can you do to make sure your child will be prepared for the real world after graduation, whether that means college or a job? For a start (and probably a shock) learn about the expectations the Columbia Public Schools have for your child's math skills.


CPS curricula are subject to several layers of "standards." The Missouri state standards are a mishmash of several documents, including a new draft document which was released April 24 this year. But you can cut to the chase and look at CPS' elementary instructional program guidelines to see that they fall short as measurable and as standards.

For example, by the end of 5th grade, CPS students are expected to:
  • Explore properties of regular and non-regular polygons, particularly triangles and quadrilaterals.
Compare that to this excerpt from the California elementary math standard for 5th grade:
  • 2.2 Know that the sum of the angles of any triangle is 180° and the sum of the angles of any quadrilateral is 360° and use this information to solve problems.
That's S.M.A.R.T. --Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely, an acronym many in the business world will be familiar with.

Did you expect your child to master multiplication and division of fractions by the end of elementary school? The goal of CPS is rather more modest. Referring again to the CPS' elementary instructional program guidelines, fifth graders are only expected to:
  • Represent fractions, decimals and percentages and order fractions and decimals using landmark numbers of 0, ½ and 1. [emphasis mine]
Manipulating fractions shows up in the new draft standards for Missouri in grades 5-7 with these rather strange wordings:
  • demonstrate fluency with efficient procedures for adding and subtracting decimals and fractions (with unlike denominators) and division of whole numbers (Grade 5)
  • multiply and divide positive rational numbers (Grade 6)
  • apply all operations on rational numbers including integers (Grade 7) [Why mention integers since they are a special and simpler case of rational numbers?]
These proposed standards seem to at least be higher than CPS standards. The Fordham Foundation gives Missouri standards an F for being vague and consistently below grade level.

But a bigger problem than the state standards are the constructivist curricula used in CPS: TERC Investigations in Number, Data and Space at the elementary level, the Connected Mathematics Project in grades 6-8, and Core Plus for the 70% of high school students who take the usual administrative advice and enroll in integrated math.

What Can You Do?

First, find out if your child is at grade level
according to a national standard, not your child's report card. Try these practice problems aligned with the California standards for grades 1-8. Placement tests are available from Saxon Math or Singapore Math for all grade levels.

What if your child is already falling behind? At the elementary level, you can likely supplement with "after schooling" using a text like Saxon or Singapore math and still give your child a solid basis that includes basic arithmetic skills and number sense, although the bad habits they develop using TERC Investigations in school may hamper their ability to be neat, fast and accurate. Too much emphasis on verbal skills and manipulatives may actually interfere with the development of mathematical reasoning.

At middle school and above, you may need to hire a tutor at Kumon, Focus on Learning, or Sylvan Learning Center, or find an online program. The Missouri K-12 Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP) uses the Calvert mathematics curriculum for elementary grades and offers an algebra sequence at secondary level. State funded seats for this fall are already full at the secondary level and nearly full at the elementary level, but tuition paying seats are unlimited.

Next, track your child's progress longitudinally. CPS administers the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) in 2nd and 5th grade and the mathematics MAP test includes Terra Nova items which are nationally normed. The Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test (IAAT) is administered either in 6th or 7th grade. (You can see the full CPS assessment plan on the district web site.) It's reasonable to expect your child's achievement to be consistent from year to year. If a score suddenly drops to a much lower national percentile rank, talk to the school and be ready to take remedial action.

The crucial transition period is middle school. You may be worried mostly about your child making new friends and finding her way from class to class on time in a new school, but you also need to worry about making the right choices in class selection so that in 5 or 6 years time, your student will be ready to graduate with the appropriate math credits for his or her post-secondary plans. All CPS sixth graders are enrolled in Connected Math, but as early as 7th grade, options may be available.

A very few students are candidates for "accelerated algebra." If your child had high scores (90th national percentile rank or higher) on early aptitude tests and has done well in school, it's reasonable to think they should be tested for an early start on the secondary math pathway. Approximately the top ten percent of CPS students are given the Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test (IAAT) at the end of 6th grade, and approximately the top 25% of those students enroll in "accelerated" Algebra I Honors as 7th graders. If you do the math, that's only about one classroom of 30 students each year. Starting in the fall of 2007, CPS intends to offer accelerated Integrated I Honors to 7th graders as well.

Algebra or Integrated?

For the vast majority of students, the decision between the algebra and integrated pathways waits until the end of 7th grade or even the end of 8th grade. These students take the IAAT at the end of 7th grade and in part based on those results, most students will be advised to enroll in integrated math. About 30% of students opt for the more traditional sequence of Algebra I in 8th grade, Geometry in 9th grade, Algebra II in 10th grade and Precalculus in 11th grade.

Work with your student to make this decision carefully and be firm. Students have the option of which math pathway to follow. Then pay close attention to homework, quiz and test scores---if your child begins to struggle, act quickly! Spend more time on math homework with your child, talk to the teacher and get extra help if necessary. Math is cumulative and you can't skip some concepts and pick them up later.

And if your child aspires to attend college, start practicing and preparing for the ACT or SAT well ahead of the usual junior year testing. If math skills are weak, studying for the test can actually improve scores, and study guides are available at the public library and at almost any bookstore. ACT and SAT scores may determine whether a student is accepted to the school of their choice and whether or not they receive scholarships.

And finally, continue to advocate for your child at her school. Talk to the teacher and talk to the school principal and talk to the school counselor. Don't expect that escalating your issue to district curriculum coordinators will resolve anything--they are charged with implementing the curriculum, not with assisting students and parents.