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Better to Have Stretched Than Not to Have Tried at All

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I'm responding to the concern raised by Kate McCauley in your Sept. 11 column ["When Achievement Push Comes to Shove"] regarding the push for rising achievement in Arlington County. I don't think that anyone would argue with the importance of continuing to move forward with goals such as raising the number of students reading at grade level and graduating from high school.

Most pertinent to Ms. McCauley's concerns, one of the indicators is to see an increase in the percentage of students passing Algebra I by the end of eighth grade, and another is increasing the number passing Algebra II by the end of 10th grade. A number of studies have shown that algebra is a gatekeeper of science and math; the earlier a student can master the course, the better prepared she will be for further math courses and for science courses in high school. This, in turn, has been recognized as an important national goal: The number of U.S. students pursuing science and math in higher education and as careers has dropped over the years, putting our country at a competitive disadvantage with other countries.

Ms. McCauley's son was in seventh grade last year, when it became clear midway through the school year that he wasn't ready for algebraic thinking. Under Arlington's goal of Algebra I by eighth grade, he was way ahead of the game. As a parent of two kids who have gone through Arlington schools and one in high school, I can personally attest to the efforts made by many teachers to push kids, to get them to stretch, and this was true well before Arlington adopted "rising achievement" as a strategic goal.

There has always been pressure on teachers to make sure students are performing at their full potential. I have no doubt that this is a difficult undertaking, to work all year to give the students the knowledge they need to advance to the next level and then to assess each student's readiness to move to that level. Indeed, Ms. McCauley wrote that it was clear midway through seventh grade that her son was not ready. Doesn't that suggest how hard it must have been for his teacher to determine his readiness level at the end of sixth grade?

I am sure that teachers slip up in both directions, under- and overestimating students' abilities to take on more difficult work. A good school system will be prepared to make mid-course corrections. Indeed, this was done with Ms. McCauley's son. I don't mean to discount the emotional impact this might have had on him or how it affected his view of math. But I suspect that it is easier for a student to recover from a harder course than it is to catch up once she is placed in a class below her abilities.

Howie Kallem

Arlington

I too fear misplacement of students, particularly in eighth-grade algebra. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has released startling data showing that 28.6 percent of the bottom tenth of eighth-grade math students nationally have been placed in algebra or above. But Arlington is one of the best-run districts in the country and the least likely to allow such nonsense.

Dear Extra Credit:

I heartily endorse Kate McCauley's letter. Here in Montgomery County, we've seen a zealous acceleration of the primary and secondary curriculum, thanks in large part to School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast preaching the urgent need to "raise the bar and close the gap," as if these are complementary goals. So I see algebra, which I struggled through in ninth grade back in the 1960s, being force-fed to seventh graders across the board. And it flows on down to where children in kindergarten are being asked to write complete sentences. Like Ms. McCauley, I think we have a problem.

Here's the thing about "raising the bar." One thing I learned out on the track field in junior high school was that when you raise the bar, not as many kids get over it. Why do those in charge of our school systems have so much trouble understanding this?

Ralph Hitchens

Poolesville

I think the best answer to your good question is that at least some of those in charge of our school systems discovered in their early years as educators that most schools set the bar too low and act on the widespread, yet inaccurate, belief that low-income kids are incapable of going any higher. Weast might be a pushy guy, but he has solid data showing that his effort to give those children better teaching and higher standards has paid off, with remarkable gains in reading and math in the lower grades. Similar data for many high schools in this area show that low-performing teens also react well to a challenge, as long as it is done carefully and intelligently.

Dear Extra Credit:

Apropos of your question in Extra Credit about whether anyone has any data about students being pushed too hard in Montgomery County, didn't you showcase it in a column Sept. 22 when you cited Tom Loveless's analysis of low performers being misplaced in eighth-grade algebra?

Julie Greenberg

Chevy Chase

Good point. Those were national, not Montgomery, data, however. I also suspect many of those misplaced students were not pushed at all but were given arithmetic lessons in courses mislabeled as algebra.

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