In response to the problems surrounding student achievement in precalculus this year, Wilton High School Associate Principal Don Schels prepared an analysis of the high school’s override policy for the April 5 meeting of the Board of Education’s Teaching and Learning Committee.

On Feb. 22, the Board of Education learned that about 30% of Wilton High School’s 151 precalculus students this year were struggling and that some students’ grades had been “renormed” or adjusted to match the grades historically seen among the school’s precalculus students.

Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell told the board in February that one cause of poor precalculus performance was that some students “hadn’t mastered the prerequisite skills in other courses.”

O’Donnell said 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.

Instead of taking Math Modeling, Wilton High School math instructional leader Peg Meurer Tanzman said, “some students took advantage of overrides” to get into precalculus.

Override policy

According to Schels’ analysis, entry into honors or AP classes at the high school 10 years ago was “strictly regulated” and required students to complete entry tests.

Students who didn’t meet a certain standard on those tests were “strongly counseled to remain in a standard college prep class,” according to Schels, and “faculty did not consider this to be unreasonable, as those standard classes were considered, by conventional wisdom, to be quite rigorous.”

Student overrides were processed via personal meetings among students, their parents, instructional leaders, and the associate principal, with the purpose of “[advising] families against rejection of the classroom teacher’s thoughtful assessment and recommendation,” according to the analysis.

“In all but a handful of cases,” wrote Schels, “families nevertheless requested the override, which was then granted.”

Over time, the school modified its approach to the override process.

Now, when students want to override into a course other than what their current classroom teacher recommends, they must file a form signed by their classroom teacher, parent, counselor, and associate principal and meet with an instructional leader, who “counsels the student to give strong deference to the teacher recommendation,” according to Schels.

If the family elects to override — which “almost every family” does, according to Schels — the request is granted.

Override data

In 2017-18, Wilton High School had 275 overrides, broken down by subject as follows:

  • Science: 99

  • Math: 72

  • Social studies: 48

  • English: 43

  • World language: 11

  • Business: 2

Of those overrides, 12 were course accelerations — nine math, two science and one world language.

Last school year, the high school had 261 overrides, 11 of which were course accelerations.

Although the 2017-18 “average grades for students who overrode into a class are relatively good,” the document states, the high school did see lower-than-average results among override students in science and math — subjects that saw high numbers of overrides this year.

Here are the average grades, per subject, of override students this year:

  • Business: B+

  • English: B

  • Math: C+

  • Science: C+

  • Social studies: B

  • World language: B+/A-

The average grades earned by students who accelerated into courses were:

  • Math: C+/B-

  • Science: A

  • World language: A

Of the 275 overrides this year, 12 of the students dropped back to a lower course prior to the start of the school year, 23 dropped back to a lower course during the school year, and three dropped their override classes and didn’t take lower-level courses.

The most-dropped override class subject areas were math and science. Before the start of the school year, eight of the 72 students with math overrides and two of the 99 students with science overrides dropped to lower-level courses before the start of the school year, while 16 of the math and two of the science students dropped to lower-level courses during the school year.

Next year

The number of requested overrides for the 2018-19 school year is “similar” to this year’s number, but Wilton High School will have “an enhanced process for students who override into an accelerated course track” beginning next year, according to Schels.

The enhanced process will require students to take “off-site prerequisites,” earn at least a C grade, and pass a competency exam designed by Wilton High School faculty prior to admission into the accelerated course.

“This flows from [instructional leadership] concerns that external courses are not adequately preparing students for entry into accelerated placements,” wrote Schels.

Other factors

Schels’ analysis states that the high school’s current override data does not support a conclusion that “overrides are a key cause of student underperformance.”

“That conclusion,” he wrote, “must be tempered by other qualitative factors.”

Qualitative factors that “may be relevant” to student underperformance, according to Schels, include money spent by families on tutoring, student stress, and teacher stress, as well as the school’s “open enrollment philosophy,” which “rests on a belief that we should let students explore their passions and seek their most authentic zone of proximal development.”

“In reality, many feel overrides have become a function of anxiety over college admissions and are completely disconnected from more soulful reasons, such as allowing a student to pursue a personal interest in greater depth, or to achieve self-actualization through greater challenge,” Schels wrote.

“All the foregoing factors seem to be present, to some degree, based upon anecdotal evidence.”

“It seems most students who override meet an acceptable degree of success in the courses where they land, so we should allow these overrides,” Schels wrote.

However, he said, the school should also “devise measures to support students in the process, paying specific attention to mitigating student and parent stress.”

The high school could “discuss limiting overrides in some way, but it seems logistically impossible to reliably and validly determine which particular cases should be allowed and which denied,” wrote Schels.

“We would likely need to issue a blanket yes or no on overrides. Perhaps a prohibition on overrides could be limited to math and science, where the impact is most keenly felt, but that could create perceptual issues around equity among departments.”