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Coming soon to a school district near you. (San Francisco Unified School District allows no acceleration whatsover in middle school).

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Parents: Math test doesn’t add up

BY ELAINE GOODMAN Daily Post Correspondent Monday, April 19, 2021

Palo Alto Unified students who want to skip a grade of middle school math must first pass five hours of tests exams that some parents say are in- tended to hold back higher-performing students as a way to close the district's "achievement gap." The optional tests, which the Palo Alto Unified School District will ad- minister next month, include a two-hour exam plus a three-hour exam given to fifth and sixth graders.

A fifth grader who passes the SO- called validation tests can skip ahead to seventh-grade math when they enter sixth grade. A sixth grader who passes the test may take eight-grade math when they're in seventh grade. PAUSD allows students to skip one grade in middle school math. But parents who talked to the Daily Post said five hours of testing for children in fifth or sixth grade is exces- sive. "Needless to say, 10 or 11 year olds are not used to such lengthy, high- stakes tests," said Daniel Guhr, who has three children in the district, in- cluding a fifth grader and sixth grader. Guhr, who heads an international education consulting firm, called a five-hour skip test "unheard of." In comparison, the SAT math subject tests, used in college admissions, are 60 minutes, Guhr noted. In addition, parents said it's not clear h ow the skip tests used by PAUSD were developed. "While math placements are available for students entering sixth grade and seventh grade, these tests are not standardized and results are not either published or predictable," said Ting Yao, who has two children in PAUSD schools, including a son in sixth grade. PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin told the Post that the concerns were coming from "a small group of parents who want to super-accelerate their students." "I don't think it's a real issue," Austin said. Sharon Ofek, associate superintendent of educa- tional services, described the validation test for sixth graders as "untimed." "However, time allotments (for scheduling purpos- es) add up to a total of five hours," Ofek said on Fri- day. "Students typically complete the assessments in a shorter time frame." Ofek didn't answer a question from the Post about how the tests were developed.

Eliminating lanes

The validation tests, known informally as "skip tests," are part of PAUSD's overhaul of its mid- dle-school math program announced in Decerrber 2019. A goal of the revised program is to reduce the "achievement gap" between disadvantaged students and others. A key piece of the plan is the "de-laning" of mid- de school math students. In de-laning, students are grouped together for math class instead of being di- vided into different classes based on their math pro- ficiency. "Experts in mathematics education agree that track- ing (or laning) students early in their education limits both high- and low-performing students, which ulti- mately leads to lower achievement overall," PAUSD said in a "frequently asked questions" document on middle school math dated Feb. 22. "Heterogeneous classes result in a deeper understanding of mathemat- is for the high achieving students, while simultane- ously raising the achievement of struggling students." But some parents disagree with the de-laning ap- proach, saying research doesn't support it. "PAUSD repeatedly claims that multilevel class- rooms are good for students and reduce disparities," said Allyson Rosen, whose daughter is a freshman at Palo Alto High. "I hear loads of complaints in middle school from parents and students about these classes. A teacher can be wonderful, but how do you deliv- er multiple lectures for multiple different levels in the same classroom? Everyone suffers because they don't get what they need."

Different approach in Los Altos

Some say they prefer the approach used in nearby districts such as Los Altos School District. In those districts, middle-school students generally have three math pathways. One is a "grade level" path that cov- ers the state's minimum requirements. Other students take an intermediate route that leads to algebra in eighth grade, while more advanced stu- dents may take algebra in seventh grade and honors geometry in eighth grade. PAUSD's overhaul of middle-school math is tak- ing place in stages. Changes to sixth-grade math are the focus this school year, with revisions to sev- enth-grade math planned for the 2021-22 school year and changes to eight-grade math in 2022-23. When asked whether the changes were accom- plishing the goal of closing the achievement gap at PAUSD, Ofek noted on Friday that the new approach to middle school math is now in its seventh month of implementation for sixth-graders. "Outcomes will be monitored as the instructional shifts are phased in over time," she said.

"Too easy and too basic'

Yao, the parent of two PAUSD students, said both her children have been frustrated with the district's elementary and middle-school math classes because they are "simply too easy and too basic." Her son passed the skip test and now, as a sixth grader, is tak- ing Math 7A, "a less boring class but (it) still doesn't give him enough challenge,' she said. Yao was looking forward to eighth grade, when her son would be in Geometry Honors, which she called shiable a "highly praised class." ." But now, the district has ap- parently eliminated Geometry H for eighth graders, replacing it with a class called Geometry 8. Yao said she hasn't been able to get answers from the district about the change. "Aside from the technicalities of the math curric- ulum, am even more concerned about the lack of transparency and lack of communication on such a significant change," she said.

Lawsuit

The debate over middle school math comes after one parent took PAUSD to court over his son's math placement. Parent Avery Wang sued the district in Santa Clara County Superior Court last year, alleging that PAUSD's math placement practices violated two sections of the California Education Code. Wang is a co-founder and inventor of Shazam, an app that can identify songs, movies or TV shows from a snippet of sound. In response to the lawsuit, PAUSD officials said they believed they were in compliance with the edu- cation code at all times. The two sides settled the case in December. The district agreed to move Wang's ninth-grade son into a more advanced math class and paid Wang $5,000. In exchange, Wang dropped his allegations of education code violations. But Wang still has concerns about middle-school math at PAUSD, including the upcoming skip test. "Five hours - what fifth grader could concentrate for that long?" he said. "Because of their new de-lan- ing philosophy, they want to make it as difficult as pos- sible for kids to break out of the one-size-fits-all plan."

As someone intent on minimizing performance gaps, I am puzzled as to why educators (where you are, where I am, and elsewhere) think that cutting down tall poppies is effective or merited, and how the public can buy into this.

How about they teach math well in the early years, so that later gaps are based on legitimate, irremediable differences in ability? No student should face barriers to math learning for social reasons. Likewise, no student should be held back from his/her potential for social reasons.

Reminds me of this short film. Worth a watch if you have 9 mins to waste, and are fed up with asinine educational policy:

I am a keen supporter of maths acceleration and curriculum compaction, but respectfully point out that understanding maths requires solid foundations, so thorough assessments for gaps in knowledge & skills before grade skips is appropriate. Whilst the expected concentration span of these students should determine the maximum length of each session, a total of five hours of assessment is not excessive, to ensure the full range of expected competencies is assessed.

It certainly makes sense to identify gaps prior to placement above the level of one's formal instruction history, but given the existence of publisher-provided placement tests in most math curricula, it would likely be more efficient to use those instead of a district-made test with no psychometric anchoring data. Or in the absence of placement tests, the end-of-course exam for the grade to be skipped. Those definitely exist for every commonly available published curriculum, and are highly unlikely to be designed for five-hour administration.

To be fair, it is possible that the district really is not requiring a test that is expected to take five hours. The time listed may be an upper limit intended to allow for extended time. (For example, our state high-stakes test allows for up to five-plus hours for each section--a full school day--but sections are designed to be reasonably completed by an NT student in an hour plus or minus.)

...pronounced like the long vowel and first letter of the alphabet...

As a firm believer in equal opportunities, not equal outcomes:

- the test being given for "skip" should be the same end-of-year test given for the grade level,

- the score allowing one to "skip" should be the same score allowing one to "pass" to the next grade level at end-of-year,

- the score which allows "skip" and end-of-year "pass" should be transparently available to all,

- students sitting for the "skip" test should have the same level of advance awareness of what is to be on the exam, as typical students are provided for the end-of-year exam,

- students sitting for the "skip" test should be provided the same advance access to any in-school test prep and/or test practice that typical students are provided for the end-of-year test,

- the skipped student should have the same access to remediation of any deficit or weakness that typical students or credit recovery students are offered.

FWIW, a quick look at the sample test item posted by the district leads back to this UC Berkeley project on performance assessments aligned to Common Core math standards, and their menu of end-of-course assessments:

Note that the MARS tests are actually only 80 minutes long in total, divided into two 40-minute sessions. So the nominal 5 hours of testing probably simply allows for 100% extended time.

I still don't agree with the rigid limitations on math placement options (especially, tbh, in a district as likely to be overweighted at the top end as PAUSD), but I think that in this case, the brouhaha over the validation tests is more a reflection of poor communication on the part of the district (which often is related to poor distrct-family relationships) than of unreasonable placement testing demands.

A problem in its own right, but a different problem.

...pronounced like the long vowel and first letter of the alphabet...

It seems like the solution to this problem is to allow gifted kids to go at a faster pace starting in kindergarten. The problem with this idea is that it is pretty easy to get a gifted kid through elementary math by the time they are in fourth or fifth grade and sometimes much earlier.

It seems like the solution to this problem is to allow gifted kids to go at a faster pace starting in kindergarten. The problem with this idea is that it is pretty easy to get a gifted kid through elementary math by the time they are in fourth or fifth grade and sometimes much earlier.

All true.

Then the *real* problem becomes inadequate teacher preparation or institutional flexibility.

Math class always feels like the edge condition in educational policy to me. There is literally no end to content, and free university resources exist to extend learning beyond the confines of K-12. It is a matter of will and ideology, and the ideology is plain.

As a firm believer in equal opportunities, not equal outcomes:

- the test being given for "skip" should be the same end-of-year test given for the grade level,

- the score allowing one to "skip" should be the same score allowing one to "pass" to the next grade level at end-of-year,

- the score which allows "skip" and end-of-year "pass" should be transparently available to all,

- students sitting for the "skip" test should have the same level of advance awareness of what is to be on the exam, as typical students are provided for the end-of-year exam,

- students sitting for the "skip" test should be provided the same advance access to any in-school test prep and/or test practice that typical students are provided for the end-of-year test,

- the skipped student should have the same access to remediation of any deficit or weakness that typical students or credit recovery students are offered.

It seems like the solution to this problem is to allow gifted kids to go at a faster pace starting in kindergarten...

Yes! All children need appropriate academic challenge and intellectual peers. For typical students, this may be found naturally in the classroom. For gifted pupils, some effort may be required to meet these needs.

The same IQ does not look the same on each gifted person; each student may have their own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, English language learners may more easily excel at math before other subjects.

As a firm believer in equal opportunities, not equal outcomes, to best meet each pupil's needs, schools should have aligned schedules, allowing each pupil to attend the level of each subject which is the best possible fit for them.

For example, a student may be two years ahead in math, one year ahead in science, on level in reading, a year lower in writing.

End of year tests for determining placement, such as math "skip," would be accepted as normal, and children fluidly moving up or down a level would be treated without fanfare, judgement, or shame.

A mix of ages is normal, natural, and healthy. It occurs as children play with siblings, cousins, neighbors, and participate in various youth activities... as well as in college/university, and future employment and volunteerism. A mix of skills and abilities is also normal, natural, and healthy. It would be great if schools acknowledged this, and doing so may well reduce the pressure of unrealistic expectations, and the resultant perfectionism, fear of failure, procrastination, and underachievement.

Originally Posted by Kai

... gifted kid through elementary math by the time they are in fourth or fifth grade and sometimes much earlier.

Depending on the student, if they are interested in taking the next level of math... facilitate the logistics to allow and support that placement. If they are not interested in taking the higher level of math at the moment, there appear to be a number of "electives" which schools could use to fill out a child's class schedule. For example, a world language, shop class, home ec, musical instrument, choir, phy ed, etc.

Many gifted pupils are not in a "rush" to graduate early, they simply need to learn something new every day.

Much can be accomplished by working with what is readily at hand, and thinking outside the box.