Andy Wight gathered high school seniors into a circle and unveiled the title of their new textbook: “PreAlgebra” by Elayn Martin-Gay.
“I took prealgebra in middle school,” groaned one student.
The student, who is set to graduate this spring from Hill Regional Career High School, is among 169 New Haven public school 12th-graders who got a spring-semester surprise: Before they can go to college, they have to go back to pre-algebra.
In other words, they have to do middle-school work before they can advance to higher education.
And it turns out some of the students, who have been promoted all the way through high school, need to do that. Some of them haven’t absorbed basics like multiplication tables. Some have trouble adding or subtracting without a calculator.
Seniors at all 11 district high schools got the surprise in January as the New Haven public schools rushed to prepare for a new state law. The law, Public Act 12-40, which the governor signed in 2012, shifts the burden of remedial education from state colleges and universities to high schools. That means that starting in the fall, Gateway Community College, the most popular destination for New Haven public school grads, will stop offering its lowest-level remedial classes, Math 075 and English 043, to incoming students who need to catch up in English and math.
The school district concluded that, based on kids’ SAT scores, about half of the city’s high school seniors may need to take remedial math or English classes before earning credit in college. Since the colleges won’t offer remedial classes in the fall, students need to catch up before then—or face being barred admission to even their local community college.
As a last-minute intervention, Gateway has offered New Haven a one-time deal for this spring: The college teamed up with the public schools to create English and math classes at all 11 city high schools that mimic the remedial classes at Gateway. Students who get a C or higher in the classes will automatically test out of Gateway’s remedial requirement—enabling them to enroll in developmental-level courses at the college in the fall, and potentially start learning other subjects.
Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the school system’s new director of college and career pathways, said the new courses aim to help students who, because of the new law, might otherwise find themselves unable to attend their local community college next fall.
The city expects to graduate over 1,000 students in June, she said. “We didn’t want to be graduating them to nothing.”
Students were identified as in danger of not being able to go to college if they earned less than a 400 in math, or less than a 410 in English reading or writing, on their SAT. A total of 550 fell into that category. Of those, 474 and enrolled in the new, Gateway-aligned “refresher” classes this spring: 169 are taking math and 382 are taking English.
The new experiment drew nine seniors last week into a second-floor science lab, where teacher Andy Wight was kicking off one of the special catch-up courses in math.
At the beginning of the course, he gave them a “pre-test” of 6 problems that illustrate the range of math expected in the course.
The first question: What is 12 + 16?
Second question: Simplify 47 ÷ 34.
(Scroll to the end of the story for the answers to the six questions displayed in the two boxes; see if you know them.)
Students were asked to do these questions without a calculator.
“Nothing here should be of great challenge to high school seniors,” Wight said, “yet we have so many who cannot do mathematical calculations of this type with confidence.”
The content of the material came as a surprise to seniors, who had been chugging along in higher math classes.
After four years of high school, why were they suddenly taking “middle-school math”?
All students had already taken pre-algebra. Students who placed into Wight’s class had all moved on to higher classes, including Algebra II, statistics and even pre-calculus.
But somehow, they passed through the system without absorbing the fundamentals of math, Wight explained in an interview.
There are students who pass Algebra II, but still can’t add, subtract or divide without a calculator, Wight said. They don’t know their times tables. And they have trouble with problems with percents.
After testing students, Wight unveiled the syllabus for the class. It started with the very basics: place value, the difference between the tens and the hundreds place. It moved on to multiplying whole numbers (maximum of 3-digit numbers times 2-digit numbers). A note on the syllabus reads: “Drill mult. tables.
Wight covered Chapter 1 before the new books came. Last week, he distributed the books and had students turn to Chapter 2, on integers. (An integer is 0,1,2,3, etc., as well as -1, -2 -3, etc.) The syllabus calls for adding and subtracting these types of numbers, up to three digits long. (E.g.: 100 minus -203.)
He told students to open the book to Chapter 2. For homework, they would have to do every other odd number.
To check comprehension, he had students go around the room counting off every other odd number: 1, 5, 9, 13, ...
One student shook her head before her turn even came. “No. I can’t do it,” she said, sounding discouraged.
Wight later said that kind of lack of confidence with basic numeracy is one obstacle the class will aim to overcome.
By the end of the course, students will reach problem-solving with percentages, including sales tax, discounts and commissions.
Wight spent some time selling seniors on the idea.
He encouraged them to ignore the title of the text book. It shouldn’t be called “pre-algebra.” It should be called “life skills math,” he offered. He said students already know a lot of these skills, but may have forgotten them. Taking the class will be like hitting the “refresh” button, and recalling important fundamentals.
“Adding 2 plus 2 does matter,” he told the class.
He handed out a cartoon that aimed to show that the place value of a number matters, too. The cartoon showed a wily corporate exec who gives himself a pay-raise of “0,” from $80,000 to $800,000.
“If you go out of high school and you can’t combine [like terms] or subtract, you’re going to be used and abused by somebody who takes advantage of your lack of knowledge,” Wight reflected in an interview.
Wight told his class that he wouldn’t spend the semester quizzing them on their times tables. But “we’re trying to make sure that doing the times table is something you’re confident doing.”
Maryy Domes (pictured), who plans to study business management at Southern, professed confidence in passing the class. The Gateway course won’t give students credit at Southern, but it aims to bring them up to speed so that they can score well on a placement exam.
Students said they aim to enroll in Gateway, Eastern Connecticut College, Albertus Magnus, or the U.S. Air Force.
The number of high school seniors who need help with middle school math and basic English is “alarmingly high,” said Garcia-Blocker. “But I’m not surprised.”
“Why? We don’t have really clear understanding of what readiness at the next level looks like. If you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know how to prepare kids for it,” Garcia-Blocker said.
Schools Superintendent Garth Harries said the need for senior-year refresher courses presents a “wake-up” call for the school district and the city. He said it also highlights key areas in which the school system and college system are not aligned: For example, the state’s high school curriculum allows kids to use calculators in math class; the state college and university entrance exam, the Accuplacer, does not.
A study in 2011 found that 89 percent of the New Haven Public School graduates who enrolled at Connecticut public colleges and universities needed to take remedial or developmental classes in English and math before they could start earning credits. That fact can be costly: Students end up burning through their federal financial aid to take non-credit-bearing refresher courses before they can even start making progress towards a degree.
Wight (pictured), who has taught math for 28 years, called students’ lack of math basics a longstanding problem.
“My math colleagues and I consider it appalling that 60-plus percent of New Haven high school graduates need remediation,” he said. “We have long been aware of this and have tried to figure out ways to address the real needs within the curricula we are supposed to teach.”
Many students “don’t have the mathematical fundamentals that every student should know coming out of middle school,” he said. Wight said students may learn the math skills for a particular course, but “skills are not being retained.” Teachers should “embed skill review in every level” of math to ensure that doesn’t happen, he said.
Garcia-Blocker said she observed the problem in her former role as principal at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School.
“I would sit in math classes, from Algebra I lab to the highest-level” classes. When kids would get a problem wrong, she said, it would often “boil down to the real lack of understanding with their basic math facts.”
“If kids don’t have a basic understanding, it’s hard to layer on the more complex math,” she said. In the current high-school system, which is based on seat time instead of mastery of a subject, students can skate through school with Ds and make it to advanced math classes without mastering the basics.
“You get to senior year with kids with these very shaky foundations, because they really haven’t mastered the skills,” Garcia-Blocker (pictured) said.
Several city high schools, including High School in the Community, are changing to a “mastery-based” system, where kids have to demonstrate they know how to each skill—such as factoring polynomials or finding the length of the hypotenuse—before moving on. In that system, kids move onto the next chapter—and the next course—at their own pace, when they’re ready. The system aims to ensure that a high school diploma “means something.”
At HSC, the experiment has faced a big challenge: Teachers discovered their incoming students had math skills as low as the 2nd-grade level. One teacher said he ended up spending all of his time in Algebra I on 6th-to-8th grade math. As a consequence, none of last year’s freshmen moved up to become sophomores after one year.
“People were outraged that those freshmen were retained,” Garcia-Blocker said. But she said the school—and a few others in town—are taking on an important shift towards ensuring kids are learning the skills they need to be successful in college and life.
A Rushed Rollout
At Career High, a magnet high school on South Frontage Road, 75 of 158 seniors found out in January that they had to take “refresher” courses in math or English, according to Principal Madeline Negron. Thirty-seven are enrolled in math classes like Wight’s.
The classes were a last-minute fix: The school found out in December that it would have to make the classes available the following month. That posed a major scheduling challenge. Students were pulled out of 11 different math classes into three new “refresher” courses, according to Wight.
The feeling was urgent: “We’ve gotta do this now or you’re screwed” after high school, Wight said.
Staff were “a little flustered” by the reshuffling, Negron said.
“The process wasn’t as smooth as we might have preferred,” said Negron, “but we have to be thinkers,” problem-solvers.
Superintendent Harries said the process was so rushed because the district didn’t come up with the idea of offering a Gateway-aligned course until last fall, after school had already started. He said the district had previously been working on “broader responses,” such as aligning the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards; offering students dual-enrollment or “middle college” programs; and new self-paced, mastery-based programs like the one at HSC; and better systems to track kids’ success in high school and college.
The refresher courses, meanwhile, arose from “recognizing the immediate situation that these students were facing.” Gateway is the most common destination for New Haven public school graduates, Harries said.
Some Lobby Against “Unfair” Law
Public Act 12-40 aims to ensure students are finishing high school ready for college. And it aims to prevent kids from spending money on remedial classes before they even get the chance to start earning college credit. Students who enroll in remedial classes are much more likely to drop out. The full law calls for high schools and colleges and universities to align their curricula.
Critics have been lobbying Hartford to address what they call an unfair discrepancy in the law: Colleges and universities are required to yank their remedial classes in 2014, two years before the law requires high schools to establish curricula that will prepare them for college. (Click here to read the Reg’s Rachel Chinapen’s recent story about a public hearing in Hartford.)
Wendy Samberg, director of instructional design at Gateway, called the law “unfair and immoral” because it “disenfranchises low-performing students without a plan in place to address the issue.” Gateway’s two remedial classes are popular: Some 1,155 students per year take Math 075 and 750 take English 043, according to Samberg. She said it’s unfair to pull the plug on those classes while students’ high-school classes still are not aligned with college coursework.
“PA 12-40 puts students in great jeopardy,” Samberg wrote in an email. She said some Gateway officials are working with legislators to delay the requirement that colleges drop their remedial classes.
In an interview Tuesday, Gateway President Dorsey Kendrick took a more diplomatic stance.
“We’re going to honor the law,” she said. She said she wanted to “stay out of the politics”; she will let the Board of Regents determine whether parts of the law should be delayed.
Superintendent Harries called the law “totally appropriate and frankly important.” Districts “should ensure that a high school diploma has maximum meaning,” he said. “The law is mobilizing and motivating good steps in that regard.”
However, he said, “I think the timing and the impact on students who haven’t had a lot of run-up to the implementation of this is a challenge.”
Garcia-Blocker, the public schools college readiness chief, said the district is “about to embark on a longer-term strategy” to “align what we are doing in high school to the expectations of college.”
“That work has not been happening” until now, she said. She said she will be sitting down with representatives from Gateway, SCSU and UConn to talk about what skills New Haven public school grads are missing when they show up in college.
Meanwhile, Kendrick said Gateway is working on ways to ensure that students won’t be barred access. While Gateway is required to stop offering its lowest-level remedial classes, Math 075 and English 043, the school is working with community partners to offer a computer-based course that would address some of those fundamentals, she said. Students will still be allowed to take a remedial “boot camp” class over the summer, and to take second-level developmental courses for one semester before enrolling in credit-bearing courses, she said.
“I do not want any child or any adult to be locked out of being able to offer their full potential,” she said.
Now for the answers to the two questions at the top story:
First question: 28
Second question: This looked like a trick question to this reporter, because you can’t reduce the fraction 47/34, because 47 is a prime number. However, Wight said the answer is 1 and 13/34, because a mixed fraction is considered more simplified than an improper fraction. The answer 1.382 is acceptable, too, he said.
Third question: 70. [Why? 14/.2 = 14*(10/2) = 70]
Fourth question: -1. [Why? 2(4) - (-3)^2 = 8 - 9 = -1]
Fifth question: -3.
Sixth question: 60.