Local school systems tackling math deficiency

Rick Wagner • Oct 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Tennessee students have made no progress in math from 2008 to 2009, according to results from a nationwide test released Wednesday.

However, two local systems are working to help students improve their math achievement with continuing programs and programs added this school year.

Math scores for Tennessee students rank among the worst in the nation and have not made significant gains over the past two years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAPE scores.

Tennessee eighth-graders scored lower than their peers in 36 states, while fourth-graders scored lower than students in 43 states.

The Volunteer State followed the national trend, failing to make any considerable improvements since the 2007 test.

After nearly a decade of gradual growth in math on the NAPE, Tennessee’s students in 2009 showed a one-point growth in eighth grade, scoring 275, and a one-point decline in fourth grade, scoring 232.

Statistically, neither result was considered a significant change.

Nationally, fourth-grade students showed no increase, while scores for students in eighth grade jumped two points from 280 to 282.

Known as the Nation’s Report Card, the assessment is given by the U.S. Department of Education to a sample of students from every state. It offers a snapshot of how the nation’s students are performing academically.

In the spring, the test was given to 330,500 fourth- and eighth-grade students. Results in reading and science will be released early next year.

Statewide, the Tennessee Diploma Project, which affects incoming freshmen this fall and all students to follow them, requires additional academic rigor, including four full years of math.

That is combined with additional rigor in math and other testing and a re-indexing of state test scores in the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

Combined, those will cause math and other test scores to go down. However, officials said redefining what it means for a student to be “proficient” will lead to increases on future exams.

Damon Cathey, Kingsport’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that the city system is teaching teachers how to work on math curriculum to fit Tennessee math standards of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and understand the standards, as well as meet the rigor of the Tennessee Diploma Project.

Additional instruction time and classes also are under way, Cathey said.

Elementary schools have shifted to 90 minutes of consecutive math instruction, while some middle school students are getting double exposure to math to work on review, problem areas or lessons to come.

At the high school level, the system this year is offering Algebra in the Singleton system, 50 minutes a day throughout the school year rather than 90 minutes a day for half the year. In addition, some of those students go on to a second 50-minute math class to supplement Algebra.

Part of the ongoing discussion is the possibility of extending the school day, both to provide more instructional time and to provide non-student days where teachers do more professional development and in-service.

At the elementary level, he said the Developing Mathematical Ideas or DMI program focuses on things like helping ensure students understand the base 10 number system.

At the elementary, middle and high schools level, the system this year for the first time has math coaches at all schools, using federal economic stimulus money.

Math coaches help with resources, model lessons and teacher collaboration at the middle and high school levels, where consultants have been brought in, too.

In Sullivan County, David Timbs, supervisor of accountability and testing, said five county schools were tapped to participate in the testing but that the schools never receive any indication of average or student scores. For 2010, he said NAPE is adding high school testing and it has tapped Sullivan South High School to participate, while Robinson Middle School and Sevier Middle School and Dobyns-Bennett High School also are to participate in 2010 NAPE testing.

“Just about every school, including all the middle schools, has gone through a schedule revamping,” Timbs said. At the elementary and middle schools, the schedule includes 90 minutes a day of uninterrupted math instruction.

The system also is in its second year with two new positions: K-5 math specialist Cathy Nester, a former Holston Elementary teacher, and 6-8 math specialist Tara Peters, a former South High math teacher.

Both go from school to school and have designated model math classrooms.

“They are about best practices,” Timbs said.

And at the 15 Title 1 schools, those with higher percentages of free and reduced lunch students, the system has Family Math Nights. The events, to include one this coming week at Holston Elementary, get students and parents back in the schools to focus on math.

In addition, Title 1 money received from federal economic stimulus funds is targeted toward math strategies, including the Web-based Math Facts in a Flash accessible at school and at home or anywhere with an Internet connection.

The system’s extended contract funds, which pay for before-school, after-school and summer tutoring, are largely math oriented.

In addition, the system added 30 minutes to the school day.

That allows extra non-student days for in-service and teacher professional development and also built-in snow days that don’t have to be made up, but any snow days not used simply mean more time in the classroom.

Students in grades 3 to 8 are benchmark tested three times a year to map their progress, and students 9-12 are benchmark tested at eight weeks and 15 weeks on new tests very similar to the ACT.

“We are really honed in on it, really above and beyond what the state is asking us to do,” Timbs said. “We’re pretty fortunate here. Sullivan County can fund good, high-quality teachers. In traveling across the state, that’s not the case.”

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