Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jones County Teachers: Reaching for 516: Teachers focused on problems with math, AYP

Math department chair Kandace Kemp acknowledges that the battle to keep up with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been an uphill one, but she's not complaining.

"We understand there are problems," she said. "But what a lot of people don't understand is that there are only a few students not meeting the mark."

Public concern has been growing with JCHS on its fifth year not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and this year being put into Needs Improvement year three status.

"That's not reflective of what we've been doing," Kemp said.

Teachers were frustrated to hear Twiggs County High School — with just 68.5 percent of students scoring a 516 or higher on the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT) — made AYP while JCHS did not. The bar for 2009 was 74.9 percent.

"Twiggs made AYP last year because of the 'safe harbor' provision of NCLB, which means if your scores improve 10 percent over the previous year, you've met AYP," Kemp said.

Twiggs had just 53.4 percent of all students passing in 2008, making the school a candidate for safe harbor.

In comparison, JCHS went from 79.3 percent of all students passing in 2008 to 76.2 in 2009, both above the Annual Measurable Objective (AMO).

"That's great for Twiggs," Kemp said, "but our bar is so much higher because of our past performance."

As if that isn't tough enough, the process of changing the curriculum to new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) by the state is throwing ma th teachers a curveball for next year since they are not even sure yet what the material will be for juniors.

Just one question makes the difference

More than 90 percent of JCHS students taking the math portion of the graduation test for the first time passed last year. The problem is the federal government has set a higher standard than passing.

"The U.S. Department of Education decided that our test wasn't hard enough under the current curriculum," Kemp said. "So, they decided students needed a score of 516 or higher out of 600."

Currently, students only need to score a 500 to pass the test and be ready to receive their diploma.

The obvious frustration for teachers and administration is the number of students who score between 500 and 515.

According to Instructional Coach Mary Frances Stewart, around 12 students scored a 514 or 515 last year.

"Sometimes it comes down to one question, " she said.

This disparity is also the reason that, while 78 percent of black students graduated, compared to 75.3 percent of all students, those same students are part of a subpopulation that has put JCHS in trouble. Just 61.9 percent of the same black students made a score of 516 or higher on the math portion of the graduation test, falling short of the 74.9 percent bar set by the state.

"They pass the test, so they can graduate," Stewart said. "They just score between a 500 and 515, so they're not counted as passing for AYP."

The students

"They're with us, they're trying," Stewart said about high school juniors taking the test. "We've had a lot of them who scored between 500 and 515 come back for the summer retest."

Last school year was the first that schools could count summer retesting into their AYP figures.

Kemp said, with just two weeks before the test on March 29, she is re viewing all four strands of material on the graduation test with her juniors.

"They've already seen the material," she said. "There is a lot of computation, geometry, data analysis and statistics. One-third of the test is over material they learned in middle school. They just need to see it again."

She said some of her Algebra 2 students, who are on the college preparatory path, need the review more than students in juniors' other option, Applied Math.

"The standards for Applied Math are geared toward material on the graduation test because they are all test-takers," she said. "The biggest weaknesses seem to be in geometry, so we've been focusing a lot on that."

Students can also use a website, www.usatestprep.com, to work extra problems and see sample test questions.

"They can login, work problems, and e-mail me the results," Kemp said.

Stewart said the school's 21st century comp uter lab has been made available to students after hours.

"Students will be able to go to the lab Monday through Thursday, 3:30-4:30 p.m., and a tutor will be available," she said. "Each of the four days will have a tutor from a different subject so students can get the help they need."

Stewart said 84 students have been identified as most at risk based on previous test scores.

"These students have been placed in advisement periods with math teachers," she said. "We have to find opportunities during the day to work with students because not all of them have transportation or computers at home."

Kemp said teachers also have to be sensitive to the fact that there are three other subjects on the graduation test.

"Math isn't their only subject, so we have to make sure they have time to work on other areas of the test," she said. "Most students appreciate what we're doing, though. They want the hi ghest scores possible."

Kemp said principal Chuck Gibson has been going around to classrooms to tell students how important a score of 516 is to them and the school.

"He's likely to just sit down next to a student during class and ask them to show him how to work a problem," she said. "He has also bought 112 test prep books and made sure calculators are available for students."

Outside the classroom

Stewart was proud to say a graduation test trivia night March 2 turned out more students and parents than expected.

"Our PIT (Performance Improvement Team) put together a spaghetti supper," she said. "Students made reservations, and we expected about 300. We ended up serving about 375."

A round of trivia competition between tables was held for each portion of the graduation test. Students weren't the only ones having a good time.

"Parents got just as excited, jumping up to turn in their answers," Stewart said. "I think they really had their eyes opened about what their kids are up against with these tests."

She said 138 juniors showed up and that many of the questions were ones similar to what they would see on the graduation test.

"Winners got free ice cream," Stewart said. "Juniors whose parents came will get to go to a cookout. The best part is that many of the students who came were the ones who really needed come."

Future of math at Jones County High

The school year beginning next fall will be the first one that juniors will be going through Math 3, which is part of the state's new GPS curriculum.

The new material features integrated math, which gets away from the traditional structure of one subject per year, but means new challenges for students.

"Every child is going to have to complete four years of math," Stewart said. "That means they'll be ready t o take college-level calculus when they graduate from high school."

That statement raises more questions for teachers who are preparing this year's juniors for a test for the last time with a known curriculum.

"We just got the sample curriculum," Stewart said. "We understand that the math curriculum needed to change, but the problem is how they're implementing it. It should've started in first grade."

Instead, the transition to GPS for high school math students began in 2008, and fifth-grade students will now be learning algebra.

"Next year, the test will be Math 1-2 and part of 3," Kemp said. "The good news is that the test will be all high school material."

Students may have more than one option when it comes to Math 4, but right now, teachers and administrators have yet to be told what those options might be.

Kemp added that the material for new math classes is very data-driven, but right now, they have no data.

"They threw out the end of course test scores for Math 1," she said. "So, right now, we have no data about what information those students took to Math 2."

"Hopefully we'll get Math 1 and 2 end-of-course scores this year," Stewart added. "The state wouldn't even tell us what the problem areas were except for some very broad, statewide data."

What teachers are doing

The new curriculum means teachers have to participate in more professional learning and review their own knowledge of math.

"Last year, we worked together to plan the Math 2 courses," Kemp said. "All math teachers are going to have to be able to teach all strands of math now. Each class will be part algebra, part statistics, part geometry, part trigonometry."

Stewart and Kemp have taught Algebra 2 for years, and Kemp currently teaches calculus, but both said the new curriculum would re quire them to review areas like statistics, which has traditionally only been taught by one teacher.

Gibson has made fundamental changes to help students excel on the graduation test, including reworking the school day, starting the current year so that students have block scheduling two days a week.

"Block scheduling allows us to add classes the second semester if we need to," Kemp said. "I picked up two Math 2 support classes."

"And I started teaching two Math 1 support classes," Stewart said. "As instructional coach, I'm not even supposed to be teaching classes."

"We're very focused on math," Kemp said. "Everyone is working, from the principal to teachers and students."

Gibson said they are trying not to let testing drive curriculum.

"You don't want to teach the test," he said. "That's not really teaching."

The principal did say, however, that tests are be coming a bigger part of education, and he is trying to accommodate that.

"Each grade is going to be testing during the graduation test week," he said. "Sophomores will be taking a practice test in preparation for the GPS model test, and seniors will be taking the Georgia Work Ready test."

Gibson said he wasn't sure how much more focused the school could be on improvement, and his soldiers on the education front agreed.

"If there's anything we're not doing, it's because we haven't thought of it yet," Stewart said.

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