Achievement and opportunity gaps in mathematics have been a well-documented problem in many schools and districts across the country. This is no different in the Cherry Hill Public Schools in New Jersey, with our historically underserved demographic groups—African American, Latinx, and low socioeconomic status students—performing at a lower level than their white counterparts on state mathematics assessments. Knowing that there is no difference in the students’ abilities—but rather a difference in learning opportunities afforded to them—we knew it was our responsibility as educational leaders to change our practices and advocate for better outcomes for all students.
Graph 1 (below) illustrates the overall mathematics achievement measured on end-of-year state assessments—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in 2016 and the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA)-Mathematics in 2019—broken down by demographic groups. Graphs 2 and 3 illustrate our student body demographic breakdown at the high school level, as well as for those students enrolled in a calculus course. What do you notice?
After analyzing student achievement data in the 2015–16 school year, we noticed a glaring theme: Our historically underserved demographic groups had disproportionately lower achievement and representation in mathematics. Specifically, we noted a difference between the achievement of this cohort of students from their sixth grade heterogeneous
ly grouped math class to their homogeneously grouped seventh grade lower-level math class.
We wondered about using a pilot approach, i.e., expanding our entry criteria for intermediate level math in grade 7. We spoke with students, families, teachers, our math supervisor, and our director of curriculum to see if we could move students into the intermediate seventh-grade math for the 2016–17 school year. All of the demographic groups we spoke with were in favor of the pilot. However, they all expressed the same concern: What kinds of support would be needed to make this a successful endeavor and not something that would cause students/families to want to drop to a lower level of mathematics in grade 7?
Understanding that tracking in mathematics limits opportunities to learn, which is one of the best predictors of student learning, we considered if tracking had anything to do with our mathematics achievement gaps as seen with our historically underserved student demographic. We wondered if this demographic group’s achievement would rise if they were placed within higher-level math tracks. If de-tracking efforts within middle level schools had found success in San Francisco Unified School District, we believed we could replicate that success at Rosa International Middle School.
From Access to Support
In the spring of 2016, we embarked on a collaborative pilot program that would expand entrance criteria, allowing for more of our historically underserved students to be moved from the lowest-level math track to our intermediate-level math track in grade 7. This increased access was a critical first step in reimagining our mathematics program to better serve our students; however, it was not enough on its own. As we developed our plan for implementation and thought about our efforts to replicate the model, we focused on five key elements.
Elements for Implementation
1. Criteria for clustering students
At the very least, building-based administrators and teachers needed to follow the same selection criteria for access into higher-level math classes. We knew that clear guidelines around established criteria for access would limit subjectivity when we began to cluster students. Central office staff, building-based administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers worked together to establish the criteria.
2. Communication to parents
Communication with parents was nonnegotiable. Parents needed to be assured that their child would be given additional support to ensure success while enrolled in the advanced-level courses. When we moved students into the intermediate level of seventh-grade math, we did several things to support their learning. First, we gave middle level enrichment opportunities to all students, but central office and building-level administrators checked in via phone calls in July and August on the specific cohort of students from the historically underserved demographic. At our Title I middle level school, we offered support in the form of a math teacher who helped rising sixth-grade students better prepare for algebra and pre-algebra.
3. Addressing the tough conversations
Whenever one engages in a conversation about tracking or additional supports for historically underrepresented students, there are diverse perspectives. Based on this, we provided building administrators with specific talking points that could be shared with parents, teachers, and students when faced with tough conversations or viewpoints that challenged the notion of more equitable access. There was a heavy emphasis on issues of equity and access and how, as a school district, we must be poised to provide options for acceleration for students who have been historically excluded.
4. Professional development
Personalized and ongoing professional development is key to the successful implementation of any initiative. To broaden our beliefs about who is capable of learning and understanding mathematics, as well as learn about equitable teaching practices, we engaged in a professional book study utilizing Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages, and Innovative Teaching. We then worked closely with our mathematics teacher coach to support our teachers with professional development, time for collaboration, and modeling of more equitable instructional practices.
During the school year, building administrators checked in with students, teachers, and families at least once a week. Teachers devised math fluency practices to reinforce sixth-grade skills for the cohort of students in each of their classes. Teachers began work on increasing the rigor of formative assessments and homework for the cohort and of all their students. The district secondary math coach utilized math conceptual understandings, math skills, fluency, and applications to assess students. We videotaped these sessions. The sessions were shared with teaching staff to develop appropriate learning activities and assessments to better support our students in the upcoming units.
5. Distinct timelines
We often follow the notion that “what gets monitored gets done.” To that end, monitor implementation by providing building-based administrators and everyone involved in the process with distinct timelines for selection of students, administration of any criteria measures, contact with parents, and professional development for staff to ensure the best possible experience for students.
Since 2016, targeted cohorts of underrepresented students have earned scores of “met expectations” or “exceeded expectations” on their seventh-grade PARCC/NJSLA state assessments. Additionally, they have successfully moved from the seventh-grade intermediate math course to eighth-grade algebra—fulfilling part of their high school mathematics graduation requirements while still in a middle level school. Upon transitioning to high school, students have continued to progress on the road to calculus by taking geometry and Algebra II with our first targeted cohort of underrepresented students taking pre-calculus this school year.
Taking the Next Steps
Since the pilot program began, we have been intentional about using more equitable criteria to initially move students into the intermediate level grade 7 math and then support them on their way to upper-level mathematics courses in high school. We have expanded the program to now include all three middle level schools within the Cherry Hill Public School District. Additionally, we have begun to use this intentionality to identify students capable of moving into our highest-level math class in grade 7, setting them on the pathway to multivariable calculus in grade 12.
As we collect more data over time, we will begin to have more focused conversations about de-tracking and other supportive interventions. While we are proud of the steps we have taken, we recognize there is still more work to be done.
Scott Goldthorp is a supervisor of curriculum and instruction in Cherry Hill Public Schools in Cherry Hill, NJ. George Guy is principal of Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill. Farrah Mahan, EdD, is the director of curriculum for Cherry Hill Public Schools.