Students at Portland Public Schools Access Academy work on math problems. The district is considering changes to its compacted middle school math offerings, which allow some students to earn a year of high school credit, setting them up to take higher level math classes. (Photo by Beth Conyers / Portland Public Schools)Courtesy Portland Public Schools
Portland Public Schools backed off from its plan to discontinue accelerated middle school math classes this week, saying the proposal — intended to improve educational equity and boost math mastery — needs further study.
In fast-tracked math classes, which the district terms “compacted math,” the bulk of the middle school math curriculum is compressed into the first two years, freeing participating students to take Algebra I in eighth grade and receive a year of high school credit. Students who pass the accelerated class are then on a glide path to take calculus in high school, which has historically been an important box to tick for many seeking admission to selective colleges.
Plans to do away with the accelerated math track prompted pushback from some parents and teachers, who say it allows high-flyers to flourish and gain college admission credentials rather than languish in math classes paced too slow or aimed too low for their abilities.
Other metro-area districts, including North Clackamas, are also considering ending accelerated middle school math, as have some districts nationally. The effort is furthest along in San Francisco, where all public school students have been taking the same math sequence through 10th grade since 2014, a change that officials said was spurred by equity concerns. There, white and Asian students were more likely to have taken Algebra I in middle school, giving them a leg up on Black, Latino and Indigenous students. Since the changeover, administrators in San Francisco say, more students of color have enrolled in advanced math courses.
In Portland, district officials say the proposed changes were rooted in concerns that speeding up math instruction in middle school has left some students without the foundational knowledge they need to succeed at higher level math. But they acknowledge they need more data to determine if that is the case.
Their preliminary evidence: Only 37% of the district’s eighth graders scored proficient at math on state assessments in spring 2022, and rates were even lower for students of color, students with disabilities and students who are homeless.
In response, the district tentatively planned to eliminate compacted math, starting next school year. That was despite the fact that some middle schools, from Cesar Chavez K-8, a higher-needs school in North Portland, to Winterhaven K-8, a math and science focus option school in Southeast Portland, offer compacted math to all their middle schoolers. Districtwide, just under half of seventh and eighth graders are enrolled in compacted math.
Now, instead, a handful of schools will pilot a shift away from offering accelerated middle school math, Kimberlee Armstrong, the district’s chief academic officer, wrote in an email to parents Friday. The goal is to take more time to figure out the best path forward, said Joanna Tobin, the district’s senior director of middle grades core academics, especially given that the district just rolled out a new math curriculum for middle and high school at the start of this school year.
District leaders plan to drill down into data, Tobin said, particularly from students who have moved from advanced eighth grade math directly into 10th grade math, to track their performance and see if they have gaps in their math knowledge.
The potential value of doing away with a system that sorts
students by math ability is underscored in the philosophy that underpins the Oregon Mathematics Standards, adopted by the state Board of Education in October 2021. Those standards set out learning expectations for every grade level.
In explaining their thinking, state math education specialists wrote of moving away from “a historical system of math education developed over 130 years ago as a way to sort students into those who are ‘math people’ and those who are aren’t” and notes that “a system in which outcomes can be predicted by race is, by definition, a racist system.” Among the areas that the state says could be re-evaluated to work towards more equitable math education: “instructional practices, course sequences
, and assessments that have historically filtered or tracked students by race, ethnicity, gender identity or socioeconomic status.”
But some parents and math teachers say that expanding and shoring up programs like compacted math, not doing away with them, is the more equitable choice.
“Everywhere that our students are allowed to excel is being pulled out,” said a math teacher who also has a child in the district and requested anonymity to be able to speak without fear of repercussions.
Students whose parents can afford it will still have access to private tutoring and other supports that will allow them to accelerate in high school, the math teacher said. But students without such resources will be less likely to be able to advance. Instead of eliminating compacted math, the teacher said, the district should improve how math is taught at the elementary and middle grade level: “Let all the kids rise, instead of just the few who have the privilege to do so.”
The district has weighed other changes to acceleration programs, also citing equity.
For example, early admission to kindergarten, which allows students who turn 5 between September 1 and September 30 to take a privately administered test as part of their petition for early entry, is on the chopping block. The need for families to pay for private testing is a key part of why the district wants to get rid of that option, according to materials presented to the school board’s policy committee by Emily Glasgow, the district’s senior director of preschool and elementary academics.
Glasgow pointed out that most families who seek and get approval for early entry to kindergarten are white and have children who have attended privately funded preschools. And with the expansion of free preschool programs in Multnomah County, there is less need for families who might otherwise struggle to find affordable alternatives to placing their child in kindergarten, she said.
Megan Robertson, the parent of a fifth grader and a member of the district’s talented and gifted advisory committee, said the wider availability of preschool was beside the point. “Early entry to kindergarten is because the child is developmentally and intellectually ready for kindergarten,” she said.
Instead, she said, the district should study how students who’ve previously started kindergarten at age 4 have fared, do more outreach to higher needs schools about the possibility of early kindergarten entry and potentially help offset the costs of testing for those who think their children might benefit
, but cannot afford it.
—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman, [email protected]
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