Schools seek math success

The Baltimore Sun

Disappointed by declining pass rates on state algebra tests, Anne Arundel County school officials are searching for ways to energize performance on a "gateway" subject that students need to graduate - and succeed in a rapidly evolving local work force of engineers and scientists.

Barely seven of out of 10 high school freshmen passed last spring's state algebra test, which includes sections on data analysis and probability. The percentage of students passing the algebra test dropped four points since 2004, even as other subjects logged impressive gains .

The data reveal an Achilles' heel in a district that is increasing its effort to have students take higher level math and science. But district officials are discovering that zeroing in on why algebra performance is faltering is like an equation with too many variables.

"Is it family education? Is it poverty or race? Is a school not providing enough personal attention to students to find out exactly why they're not passing? It could be a combination of any of these," said Anne Arundel's chief school performance officer, George Arlotto, a former high school math and science teacher.

"We have done a lot of work in schools to make sure we're reaching each and every student, but I would say we're disappointed by some of these numbers," he said. "From the work I have seen happening in schools, I thought we would be farther ahead than what these numbers show."

Five of the school system's dozen high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or less, according to data released last month and still being analyzed by high school principals and administrators. Among African-American students, pass rates were below 60 percent in eight of the high schools; Hispanics, in six.

The scores in Anne Arundel County are worrisome, considering the district's relative affluence and its location in an area that will be home to thousands of high-paying technical jobs coming through the military's base realignment and closure process, said Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math and a math education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"They need to get underneath the test to see what aspects of the test students are having trouble with. What are students not getting in terms of math instruction starting from pre-kindergarten and leading up to the time they take the test?" Fennell said.

The council put out a report this year that suggested one reason why math performance has been a weak spot for many districts nationwide - a high-stakes, testing-driven curriculum that forces teachers to hurriedly cover dozens of concepts. The report, which called for a more streamlined math curriculum covering as few as three objectives a year, has spurred Maryland State Department of Education officials to revisit math lessons required in the state.

In Anne Arundel County, officials weren't surprised to see weak performances on the algebra test in schools with high-poverty populations such as Annapolis High, where only 34.3 percent passed. But some are stymied by relatively low rates in higher socio-economic schools such as Arundel High, where just over half passed it.

School board member Eugene Peterson said the district needs to do a better job of preparing students to take algebra by the eighth grade.

"It's competitive out there now," he said. "You're DOA in high school if you don't have algebra by middle school."

He said he's dismayed when he sees low pass rates among minority students, even when they're a small part of the school population - at Chesapeake High, about a third of the 35 black students who took the algebra test passed.

"That's just 35 kids you got to help get through the class and the test," Peterson said. "Every one of those students should be passing the test. Teachers, the principal, have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen."

District leaders believe Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's reorganization of the district to include community superintendents overseeing a school feeder system will help ensure that the work to prepare successful high schoolers begins as early as kindergarten.

In the past, high schools had conversations about how to improve among themselves. Nowadays, high school principals are talking to elementary and middle school leaders about the kind of preparation their future students need.

Those kinds of talks are paying off at Northeast High, where algebra pass rates jumped by seven percentage points to 68.8 percent - the highest increase in the district.

"We made that improvement not on our own but because of the work at the elementary and middle schools that feed into us. Those students are coming to us much-better prepared," said Principal Kathy Kubic.

It is hardest to catch up in math where concepts quickly build on one another, said Kubic, a former math teacher. That's why Northeast's math teachers have weekly meetings with every student - not just the struggling

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