I spent last evening talking with a school counselor at a party. She works at the big, over crowded public school nearby and she mentioned a few things I found incredibly interesting.
(1) Despite the fact that they laid off about a third of their staff last year, and they started school this year with 45 students to a class, there are going to be more cut backs for next year and she's not sure she'll still have a job. Though she's a part time counselor, they have assigned 200 students to her, requiring her to work more than full time hours. If she gets let go, the "full time" counselors will have maybe 500 students each? Maybe more?
(2) The state of Oregon has changed its standards for this year. (I knew this already. They took 4 or 5 simple standards for each high school class and ballooned them into hundreds.) These standards will require all high schoolers to complete three years of math above algebra 1. I'm not in opposition to students learning more math at all, so I hadn't thought too much about this requirement, but the counselor I was speaking to last night said that a huge percentage of students this year at her school (I think she said 50% of those enrolled in Alg 2 but I'm not sure, surely it can't be that high) failed the first semester of algebra 2. This means that they can't progress to the second semester of algebra 2 and for now, her job is to look around and find easy online classes that will get them that half credit. That's her fix for now. Next year, once these new standards take effect, these students will have no recourse. They will have to take algebra 2, but at this school, many of the students taking algebra 2 are seniors and they won't get another chance to retake it. So I asked her if they can take an extra year to graduate and she said that 5th year seniors aren't allowed back. They have to go to am alternative school to finish up their final year.
The big question that was rocketing around my head was "what's the point?" What was our goal in creating this new standard? The rationale must have gone something like this:
"Our students are constantly under-performing on their math standardized tests, what should we do? We look bad compared to other states."
"Let's make the math requirement in high school more extensive. If we require students to take more math classes, surely they'll learn more math and do better on tests."
But at least in this one public school, according to this counselor, the new math standard will leave a lot of students without what they need to graduate, so a lot of them probably won't. Is the purpose of the standard to weed out the "bad" math students and to deny them any chance at graduation? Shouldn't we ask ourselves what's wrong with the elementary and middle school math programs if high school students can't pass state math tests? I asked her why students were failing in algebra 2 and not earlier on. She said the students for the most part could scrape through algebra and geometry with Ds, but then couldn't pull it off for algebra 2. Why would they even let a kid who'd gotten Ds in both algebra and geometry into algebra 2? Isn't that a bit of a red flag right there? It just all seems so broken. And it seems like a lot of kids are getting really hurt by the way this system is run. Why can't we let them into consumer math, or math for future carpenters or something? What's wrong with taking a math class targeted to the careers students may pursue later in life? Does every kid need algebra 2? Or rather, should passing algebra 2 be what determines whether or not they graduate?
(3) The third interesting thing from this conversation was her description of one algebra 2 teacher's methods. One algebra 2 teacher in the school requires that all her students pass each section of her tests. If they fail a section- even if they got a passing grade on the test, she refuses to enter it into their grade and they have to redo that section. If even one section is left as a fail, she refuses to give them a grade for the class until they have shown they mastered that material. I thought this was kind of awesome because it's letting students slide by with a half-baked understanding of the material that leads them to fail as soon as real understanding is demanded of them. This teacher makes sure that every student who passes her class knows all the material the course covered. The counselor though, had a different take. She said that she got 3 or 4 phone calls each week from desperate parents begging for their students just to be given a C and moved on. Why are they desperate? Because their student needs that credit to graduate. All they care about is the credit and ultimately, the diploma. So when we make these kinds of math standards- what are we doing to parents and students? Are we really just teaching more math?