Thursday, March 13, 2008

Earning high grades in Reform Math

A's in math is one of our family's left-brain traditions.  Many of us are mathematicians, scientists, economists, and programmers, and even those with learning disabilities or non-quantitative careers have maintained the streak of top grades in grade school math--at least through trigonometry.  Then, a year and a half ago, my daughter entered grade school.

Because her oldest brother is old enough to have escaped Reform Math, and her middle brother has autism and an IEP that lets him do algebra independently, she is the first in our family to be fully immersed in the Reform Math curriculum that has recently permeated almost every school here in Philadelphia.  And instead of receiving the top grade of 4 ("advanced"), she consistently gets 3s ("proficient").

Perhaps our elementary schools are rare exceptions to two rules.  

Rule #1 is the tendency of all assessments--letter grades, grades out of 100, teaching evaluations, employee evaluations, surveys, and informal expressions of preference--to divide into four gradations that translate, roughly, into "excellent," "good", "fair," and "poor."

Rule #2 is grade inflation, rampant throughout high schools, colleges, graduate schools, and even the compliments we bestow on our children and friends--for faint praise, invariably, is damning. Could it be that our elementary schools have bucked this trend for grade deflation?

Apply rule #2 to rule #1, and the top grade means not just "excellent," but "good," while the next highest shifts down to "average."

But if elementary students rarely get 4s, I'm not worried that continued 3s in math will compromise my daughter's options for one of the few magnet high schools that offer Philadelphia students a decent secondary school education.  

Otherwise, I not only worry, but question. What exactly are my daughter's 3s based on? One thing is certain: they don't reflect her math skills.

I know this because, in the Singapore Math she does at home, she is doing problems that are significantly more advanced than those she's doing in Reform Math.  For example, she's currently solving, accurately and without help, Singapore problems like:

--4 children share 12 crackers equally.  How many crackers does each child get?

--20 less than 98 is ___ 

Meanwhile, in her Reform "Today's Math" book, she's currently (accurately and without help) solving problems like:

--How many black triangles are there in Pattern A?

--There are 9 counters in all.  Four of them are next to the cup.  How many are under the cup?

Most kids in her class, so far as I know, aren't doing simple division and two-digit subtraction on the side.  And there are no opportunities to demonstrate such skills in the classroom.

Indeed, this is the crux of the problem with the new math grading system.  The actual math skills it assesses are so basic that most students are at ceiling.  The only way to distinguish them is through non-mathematical aspects of their performance.  (For similar observations, see kitchentablemath).

The Pennsylvania Math Standards on which the Philadelphia public schools base their grades, in fact, include numerous non-mathematical factors: explaining in words, drawing pictures, manipulating objects. Perhaps my daughter's explanations and drawings aren't as elaborate as some of her peers'. Perhaps she doesn't complete hands-on tasks as quickly as others do. And perhaps her shyness and passivity keep her from making oral contributions that "demonstrate superior understanding of concepts, skills and strategies" and from "independently explor[ing] ideas and topics:" two of her report card's benchmarks for grades of 4.

It's of course way too early to say just how strong my daughter's mathematical talents are.  But I can't help wondering how many math buffs are being lost in the new system, and what this means for both their future, and that of this country.


Catherine Johnson said...


So glad to have found your blog.

This is synchronicity; our district K-5 has just moved to a 1-4 report card.

This is relevant to your situation because apparently the kids are all getting 2s and 3s. One teacher told a friend of mine that they changed to the 1-4 system because they "want to stop giving everyone Es." (Es for excellence.)

We've seen grade deflation here, and you may be seeing it there, too.

In short, I wouldn't assume your daughter is actually getting 3s.

If everyone is getting 2s and 3s she's still getting....As or something like an A.

Catherine Johnson said...

I hadn't read your entire post and didn't realize you'd asked this question:

Could it be that our elementary schools have bucked this trend for grade deflation?

Is you district affluent?

I have a reasonably well-supported hypothesis that affluent districts frequently engage in grade deflation.

lefty said...

Great to hear back from you!!!

Our district is the impoverished Philadelphia school district. But our school receives special funding from the University of Pennsylvania, and "expertise" from its Graduate School of Education, which has chosen Investigations over the Everyday Math that the rest of the district uses.

Catherine Johnson said...

Our district is the impoverished Philadelphia school district. But our school receives special funding from the University of Pennsylvania, and "expertise" from its Graduate School of Education, which has chosen Investigations over the Everyday Math that the rest of the district uses.

That would explain it.

Ed schools are about equality in the sense of sameness; they oppose all forms of ability grouping.

The logical extension of that is that not only is everyone in the same grade, but everyone receives the same grade, too!

I wonder whether this is starting to happen...

For my money, if you're going to give everyone 2s and 3s you should get rid of grades altogether (which would be fine with me given the opaque grading that goes on around here).

Grading the faster kids "down" to put them on the same level of achievement as the less speedy kids is wrong.

But it will be happening more and more now that all student work is "assessed" via "rubrics."

The end of "rote memorization" also mean the end of transparent and objective grading.

lefty said...

So, nice to be corresponding with you, Catherine!

Yes, words like "rubric" (along with "best practices," "standards," etc., etc.,) make me squirm.

What you observe about ed schools meshes with my own experience. Last year I sat in on a "math methods" class in which the teacher trainees were specifically told not to pick the "brightest" kids when doing their field work case studies.

Which shows that at some level, even the ed schools recognize that such kids exist, even as they try to get everyone else to ignore them!

concernedCTparent said...

In our district, I actually think Everyday Math had such influence that our report changed to accomodate the curriculum.

I blogged about it here.

What a fantastic blog!

lefty said...

I love your blog on the influence of Everyday Math on report cards. I'm guessing the underlying factor is the state standards, in turn based on the National Standards, on which everything seems to be based?

I also found it really interesting to look at the emphasis on social skills that both the NY and MI report cards show: e.g. ratings on "socially appropriate" behavior and participating in "large groups." All these downgrade children who are shy, socially awkward, or social aloof. As a child, I wouldn't have done well here.

Catherine Johnson said...

Character education is mandated by the state here in NY.

The horrifying thing is that this go-round of character ed dates back to Bill Bennett & the Reagan administration.

I have nothing against Bill Bennett but what gets to me is the fact that my district is very liberal which means that Bill Bennett values are being interpreted by "anti-Bill Bennett" administrators.

I've come to believe that any time you have right and left agreeing with each other regular citizens are in trouble.

lefty said...

That's hilarious! I'd love to hear other examples of the ill-effects of agreement by the right and left. What's up with it? Is it the echo chamber or Solomon Asch effect?

I tend to connect social skills ratings to Goleman's Emotional Intelligence and Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. Do you know how long report cards have been in the business?

lefty said...

Oh, and Catherine, thanks so much for the huge plug on your blog. It's a great honor, and an honor, as well, to be connecting with your group.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Here's a completely different viewpoint on the elementary school grades issue. I have noticed that my kids usually start out the year getting mostly 3's, or in the case of the classes that are rated O (outstanding) S (satisfactory) N (needs improvement) , they get S's. This is despite test papers in the A to A-plus range. Take a look at the last semester's grades though and you'll see mostly 4s and Os. I discreetly asked a teacher about this once and she confided in me that this is mainly because the schools need to show that the child has made improvement over the course of the year. Lots of grants and federal funding depends on being able to show that the school's pedagogy has actively helped the children it is teaching...and one way to show that is through grades. Grades showing improvement that is! Just a thought.

lefty said...

Very interesting. I see this happening at the university level as well, with professors giving out lower grades at the beginning of semesters than at the end. In this case, I think it's so that students will feel relieved and happy with their final grades (and will rate their professors accordingly!).

Anonymous said...

From a conservative 'left field' mom (engineer) in Georgia: The UGA Education school has a heavy hand in the new state standards in Georgia - complete with profs who actually go into school districts and explain how UGA's Math dept is actually more math-competent than Georgia Tech's. Quote from parent meeting in 2007: "UGA is NOW the math school in Georgia." I refer to "reform math" as Liberal arts math. We are in a rural district (that way over pays our liberal-arts-major-educrats) and the next closest school is in the next county. No private schools are available. There is no convincing an arrogant liberal-arts-major-educrat that "reform math" is idiotic. They don't even believe the national test scores! They are actually trying to omit the ITBS and rely only on the "reform math" State test concocted by the UGA Ed. Dept. I graduated from high school in the 80's - no one EVER suggested that I become a teacher. That is the problem. No math-minded people have jobs within education, anymore. That generation retired.

lefty said...

So true. I feel lucky to have gone to school back when I did.

I'd love to know more about the Georgia state test you mentioned. Do you have any info or links?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to post links, but here are some articles about the silly new math standards for Georgia HS students. Beginning next year, they no longer take alg, geom, etc. They take Math 1, Math 2, 3, and 4. It is a spiraling integrated math curriculum and many parents are in denial or shock. This is UGA's baby.

A parent group has formed for the metro atlanta counties to force a traditional math track along with the new garbage.
Here is an article about how easy the crct is.

I cannot find info on UGA's involvement with the CRCT (Criterian Reference Competency Test), at this time.

Ξ_Heather said...

Our district (upstate NY) switched to a 1-4 system a few years ago, and I've talked to some other parents and teachers about it.

One teacher told us that a 3 meant that he'd met the grade expectation for the year. This meant that if he got a 3 in the fall, he was actually way ahead. She didn't necessarily agree with this system, but that was her understanding of how she had to grade. In talking to other parents, my suspicion is that different teachers interpret the guidelines differently.

Personally, I've found a little bit of relief in being uncertain with this system. I have a suspicion that I'd want my child to get lots of As, but the numbers I'm not quite as sure how to interpret, combined with the fact that the report cards have about 30 different sub-areas instead of just a few main ones, and so I'm more inclined to treat the report card as just an overall-check for problems or surprises. I suspect that this is a good thing for him and for us.

(I'm not sure if this is related to reform math, though - our district switched to 1-4 at the elementary level in all subjects, not just math.)

Anonymous said...

heather - I was on a tangent. The Math 1, 2, for HS in Georgia is different than the topic of this article. My sister's kids in Missouri use the 1,2,3,4 you are discussing. They are in elem. school. She noted that some teachers start the year low and then finish the kids with all 4's. She thinks the teacher does that to everyone to show the parents and admin. how all of the students improved under her teaching. She does not think the teacher gives anyone a 4 until after mid-year. Smoke and mirrors.

lefty said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for these links. The Ledger report on what's happening to high school is truly alarming! Most of what I've seen so far are changes to elementary school and middle school math; this seems a far more drastic change--a truly global re-organization, with lots of opportunities to ditch whole topics. Trig? Calculus?