April 08, 2020

Ellsworth parents upset with math program

ELLSWORTH — A pilot program that mixes ability levels in fifth- and sixth-grade math classes has come under criticism from parents who say their kids, who might have otherwise been in a separate honors class, are “marking time” while other students catch up.

“They’re bored to tears,” said Charlie Colwell, waving his fifth-grade daughter’s speed-drill sheet of problems as basic as 2 x 2.

He was one of about a dozen parents who met with teachers on Thursday night to discuss the “flexible math groupings,” which started up last fall. The program was designed to help all students master the basics of the year’s math curriculum, in line with the state’s Learning Results goals.

Instead of tracking students into separate classes based on their abilities, the pilot program combines them into one class for several weeks, then divides them into four groups for one to two weeks based on how well they understood the unit. Students who didn’t “get it” review the unit and take a second test. Those who “got it” work on advanced projects within the same subject, such as practicing arithmetic by learning how to balance a checkbook or calculate sales tax.

Parents are complaining that the mixed-ability groups force teachers to focus on the lowest common denominator. They say the class work is too easy and once their kids “get it,” they’re not pushed to move on. Even during the first few weeks of each unit, a handful of students often “pre-test” out, so the teacher has to come up with something else for them to work on.

Paul Lock, a fifth-grade teacher at the Bryant E. Moore School, said he initially had reservations about the program, and still does. “I knew I’d be able to present [that top tier of students] with things to do on their own initiative,” he said. “But at age 10 or 11, initiative only goes so far.”

Lock said that 10 of his 20 students are now working on their own while he introduces a unit to the rest of the class. “I feel the kids are not able to go where they can go,” he continued. “I am teaching to a certain number of the kids to make sure they’re able to take the test.”

Jim Newett, the middle school principal, and Moore school principal Carl Lusby agreed that the classes must find a way to better accommodate the quicker students. But they emphasized that the groupings have worked well for other students. Lusby sent out a survey to all 98 fifth-grade parents, but only 15 responded. Ten rated the pilot program “good” or “very good.”

The principals and teachers explained that with the extra review, the students who don’t “get it” the first time are no longer handed a C or D and hustled along to the next chapter. Most students’ scores improved on the test after the review. The pilot also lessens the stigma of being tracked into a “low-ability” class. A student who is gifted at arithmetic, but not as gifted in geometry might make it into the top group for one unit and move down for the next. About 20 percent of the sixth-graders moved into a different group between the first two units.

Although the top students may not be exposed to as many different concepts as they would in an honors class, teachers say they master the lessons more fully because they have to use what they’ve learned in complex word problems or creative brain teasers. Meanwhile, all sixth-graders this year will be introduced to fractions, said Newett, while the lower-level classes often didn’t make it that far in previous years.

Alice Dow, a school board member, said she was disappointed at the low numbers of parents who have commented on the pilot program. It leaves her and the school board, she said, in the dark as to what most parents are thinking.

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