Problems surrounding student achievement in precalculus at Wilton High School were a hot topic of discussion at the Board of Education’s Feb. 22 meeting.
“We’ve got quite a bit of feedback in the last couple of weeks about mathematics, particularly the precalculus classes at the high school,” said Superintendent Kevin Smith.
There are 151 students in seven precalculus sections taught by three teachers at the high school, and Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell said “concerns” about students’ precalculus performance are being “taken very seriously.” About 30% of the students were struggling.
One cause of poor precalculus performance, O’Donnell said, is that some students “hadn’t mastered the prerequisite skills in other courses.”
He said that only “a very small number” of students “followed the recommendation” of enrolling in the school’s Math Modeling course, which is designed to prepare students for precalculus. As a result, that class was not offered.
O’Donnell said the school has been “analyzing data points” since the beginning of the year after instructional leaders informed him and Assistant Principal Greg Theriault of a group of students who are “not as well prepared” for precalculus.
“They noted there were gaps in the students’ knowledge, skills, performance, and application,” O’Donnell told the board.
Following an analysis of first-quarter grades and discussions with teachers, O’Donnell said, an after-school program was put in place to help struggling precalculus students. O’Donnell said the program included “remediation, re-teaching and also pre-teaching for subsequent topics and concepts in precalculus.”
The high school also decided to “institute a curve — or what we describe as a ‘renorming’ — to be fair to students and families in terms of reflecting actual performance,” said O’Donnell, adding that the decision to renorm grades was made after “carefully” listening to students and their families.
“In looking at these students, we did have a number who honestly came in with legitimate concerns and who, when analyzing their track record, you could see that these were students who had performed well in previous courses, who had the traditional track of algebra to geometry to precalculus and who were performing well in other courses, including — to some extent — honors and AP courses.
“We felt we had to do something for the benefit of all the students, so the students at the upper end received less of the curve, if you will, and students on the lower end received more. Our analysis was that this was a fair solution … in terms of helping these students and taking some of the pressure off them.”
As a parent of a precalculus student at the high school, Board of Education member Lory Rothstein said, she’s been on the receiving end of “all the communications around these issues” and has “found the communications to be more confusing than anything else.”
After receiving a letter about “issues” regarding precalculus, Rothstein said, her response was: “What issues?”
“There was an assumption made that everybody knew that this was a common problem, and it was a wrong assumption,” she said.
Rothstein said she then received a letter saying that the problem was going to be fixed by renorming grades and it was the first time she had ever heard of such a thing.
“I’ve heard of curving, but I’ve never heard [about] renorming,” she said, “so I sent an email back that said, ‘What is renorming?’”
Rothstein said she received an “ambiguous” response in which she was instructed to contact the instructional leaders about it.
“The letter should have explained very detailed what renorming is. It should have given an example of it,” she said.
As of Feb. 22, Rothstein said, she still had “no idea what renorming means.”
Wilton High School math instructional leader Peg Meurer Tanzman’s first attempt at explaining renorming as a “linear model that adjusts grades according to how far they are away from 100” left Rothstein asking, “How am I not to interpret that as we’re just giving extra points to the students who aren’t doing well?”
“When we look at grades, we expect, historically, to be consistent with the year before … we’re expecting some sort of [distribution of] As, Bs, Cs, Ds,” Tanzman said.
Because the grades received by some of this year’s precalculus students “were not what we normally have,” Tanzman said, “they were adjusted to match what we historically had.”
More than 50% of precalculus students are getting As and Bs, said Tanzman, so their grades didn’t need adjustment — “it was the bottom end that was alarming.”
“We have kids failing and getting Ds,” she said. “That is unusual.”
Education board member Glenn Hemmerle asked how many of the precalculus students were getting Fs and Ds and had their grades “dramatically adjusted.” Although O’Donnell did not have the exact number readily available, he said it was “much higher than 20% or 30%.”
Wilton High School math instructional leader Cindy Cherico noted that a student receiving a D “would have gone up to the C range, but not higher.”
“This whole thing is really a mess, in my opinion — an absolute mess,” said Hemmerle.
Lack of preparedness
Although some students took advantage of overrides to get into precalculus instead of taking Math Modeling, Tanzman said “the exact problem” can’t be pinpointed “because there are so many issues,” including students lacking skills as a result of what’s known in the Wilton Public School District as “the implementation gap.”
When the district adopted Common Core Standards and rolled out Math in Focus — also known as Singapore Math — in 2011-12, K-8 math curriculum coordinator Trudy Denton said, “we had a period of about a year where students were being taught some chapters from Everyday Math and some chapters from Math in Focus.”
About two years later, she said, “we learned that curriculum was not really fully aligned with the Common Core Standards, so when it came time for students to sit for the Smarter Balanced [Assessment Consortium] exam … many of our students weren’t making the benchmarks we would like to see them make.”
The “hardest hit students,” said Denton, “fit in the seventh and ninth grade band.”
O’Donnell said the “broad range of learners” in their classes, which can have as many as 27 students, is something the teachers have been struggling with since the beginning of the year.
Trying to get the students “ready for precalculus” and finding a way to “differentiate and meet the other students’ needs and not completely leaving them behind,” said O’Donnell, “was a real struggle for these teachers — and remains a struggle.”
School board member Laura Schwemm said she is “concerned about the kids in precalculus ending the year with the skills they need to go to calculus.”
In addition to working “very hard” to make sure students are prepared and aware of course expectations, Cherico said, precalculus teachers have also been “identifying areas where there are weaknesses and trying to deal with them.”
O’Donnell said the “general lack of preparedness“ has been “very troubling since day one” because “it wasn’t anticipated.”
Trying to pinpoint the cause has also been “very frustrating,” he said, and with “so many factors” involved, “a clear, singular solution remains unapparent.”
Nevertheless, the focus has been on what the students need right now, said O’Donnell.
Current and future work
Education board member Deborah Low said she was “surprised there were no warning signs until precalculus,” and wants to know what’s going to happen next year to try to “rectify the immediate problem.”
Cherico said there’s “a lot more collaboration among teachers teaching the same courses this year to assure a more common experience of everyone coming out of an algebra 2, geometry or algebra 1 course.”
“We made that a very concerted effort, and through our IET [instructional effectiveness team] meetings, we’ve also recalibrated our grading,” she said.
Algebra 2 teachers are also “making recommendations together and looking at who belongs where,” said Tanzman, adding that there will be a College Algebra with Trigonometry (this year’s Math Modeling) next year for students who are not quite ready for precalculus.
Denton said administrators are also “taking a big step back to take a look at what we’re doing across the district.”
Denton said the three components of a successful math program are curriculum, instruction and consistency.
“In terms of instruction, we have adopted two lesson frameworks — one tailored to the K-5 level and one tailored to the 6-12 level — [that] are grounded in students’ instruction, loosely based on the Singapore Math model,” she said, “and the coaches work with teachers to implement that instructional framework.”
Although teachers are “in different places,” Denton said, the “focus and goal” is to “achieve consistency and full implementation of those lesson frameworks” in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein said the board has heard from parents who “still don’t feel that their child’s situation has been addressed” and are spending “hundreds and hundreds of dollars on tutoring.”
“I think so much of it comes down to communication,” she said, adding that there are parents whose calls to the schools have not been returned and who have felt that communication has been “really lacking.”
“I just hope that we can learn from this,” said Finkelstein, “and I hope we can address everybody who still feels that their situation is still hanging out there.”