Blog: Math and Algebra in the Newark School District

Twinkle, twinkle little STAR, how I wonder what you mean...? Newark parent and Patch blogger Birgitta Bower works on unraveling information behind standardized test results.

Moving on to Middle School is a major change for a child. It is also a big change for parents. With one kid starting junior high and one in high school, I am trying to process last week’s school start. I’ve explored some circumstances that I feel is of general interest.


STAR is the all important test in the spring that kids are subjected to from 2nd grade up to grade 11. It is the report card for a school and district as well as an individual student's results (students don't have their personal 2012 results yet), and the source for the API (Academic Performace Index) score. API is what lots of parents look at when scouting real estate websites to check for "good" or "bad" school districts. The result of the 2012 STAR was published August 31 . See Newark Patch article from August 31st  and on the California Department of Education website: http://star.cde.ca.gov/.

The STAR test results categorize the performance of students as:

  • "Advanced"
  • "Proficient"
  • "Basic"
  • "Below Basic"
  • "Far Below Basic"

It tests English and math for the lower grades, science in fifth grade, history in eighth grade, algebra I and II, geometry, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, "summative high school mathematics,"  and world history in high school.

The overall results for Newark are a matter of attitude; do you see the glass as half full or half empty? Half of the kids were proficient or advanced, but the other half were not. (Proficient /Advanced: Reading: 53 percent, History 44 percent, Math 53 percent, Science 58 percent, from an article that appeared in The Argus.

You can look at the Newark results, school by school and subject by subject, if you click here.

The USA, California and Math

Math skills are not what they should be in United States when seen in a global perspective. Here are quotes from a Hoover institute report in 2010: http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/TT-Report-global-perspective.pdf (PDF).

Unfortunately, the percentage of students in the U.S. Class of 2009 who were highly accomplished in math is well below that of most countries with which the U.S. generally compares itself. No less than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) tests. While 6 percent of U.S. public and private school students rated as advanced in 8th-grade mathematics, 28 percent of Taiwanese students did.

Our state Superintendent. Tom Thorlaksen, is still upbeat and says about the 2012 STAR results, according to a press release that you can find here

"In less than a decade, California has gone from having only one student in three score proficient to better than one student in two.

That's nearly 900,000 more students reaching proficiency now than in 2003—a remarkable achievement that represents real, sustained improvements in learning."

Nationally, California ranked as 46th (out of 52 = 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools.) in reading and math in 2011 (see Californiawatch.org and the National Assessment of Educational Progress http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2012459).

Nobody is denying there is a crisis, or that math skills will be useful in whatever global world our children will have to find a job in. We need all students to pass some fundamental math, we need all kids to reach their potential, and we need some kids to excel in math. We have to afford and make funding available to do it, or our kids will not be prepared for the future.

Newark and Math

Newark has adopted “Pacent” as one of the tools to improve math results in Newark. “Pacent”* (pacent.org) is a math assessment strategy that aspires to makie sure all kids keep up. Students take weekly tests to check that they have mastered the past week's lessons. If not, they have to relearn and redo the test, up to three times if needed. If the student still has gaps, there is an "intervention," where students get extra support after school.

I can't remember being given much information about Pacent. I haven't seen it evaluated, and I can't find anything on the Newark School District website now. Ask your child's teacher about it, if you haven't already. (I’m posting a page of a Pacent ‘student result report’ as an example, see photo)

Hopefully Pacent and other new methods of teaching and learning will make a difference. Kids should not advance, if they don't grasp the fundamentals of math. You can’t build something on a sinkhole! Worse, with math, what a student has not grasped, accumulates like a rolling snowball, and trying to deal with gaps in high school looks almost hopeless, judging from the STAR test scores. The foundation has to be built in elementary school. By the time students reach seventh grade, they are already a very heterogenous bunch as regards math skills.

Our District is working to improve the math teaching skills of Newark teachers. See on August 24 where he said:

We’re bringing in math instructors in that work with Cal State East Bay to work on algebra and do some professional development for algebra teachers because algebra is an eighth grade curriculum and at a lot of school districts it’s a ninth-grade course. We’ve got to do a better job at elementary school so that more kids, all kids, should ultimately be taking algebra at Newark Junior High School. We’ve almost doubled our algebra offerings at the junior high school in one year. We need to continue that push so that students can continue to high school with more academic options. We have reduced the number of algebra classes at the high school, and increased the number of geometry classes [there]. We’ve increased the number of algebra classes at the junior high school.

Junior High Choices in Math and English 2012-13

When you get to seventh grade there is a fork, or rather two, in the road. For English, there is Language Arts versus Language Arts advanced. In Math, there are three different options: pre-Algebra, pre-algebra accelerated, and algebra 1. Where your child ends up, you learn when you pick up the schedule, a couple of days before school.

Parents are aware of their children’s degree of success in school through report cards, teacher contacts, the STAR tests and other tests, so it should not be a total surprise. However, as I experienced the transfer to junior high this year, there was a general lack of information to parents, students and even teachers.

As I understand it now, the seventh grade math placement is based on the ‘Pacent’ results and tests from sixth grade. The scores ended up on Principal Mark E. Neal’s computer at the junior high at the end of sixth grade. Mr. Neal placed the students in pre-Algebra or pre-Algebra accelerated. By email, the sixth grade teachers got to agree or not, and I guess, have some input if they disagreed, to where their students had been placed.

Next, the principal emailed the sixth grade teachers to inquire if there were any recommendations of student to take an Algebra readiness test. (Actually, it seems to be two tests; they measure seventh grade math skills and also math aptitude. I don’t know if the tests are the same for the county or state, or just local.) The test was distributed to the sixth grade candidates just before summer vacation.

As parents, we heard nothing as this was happening. At the end of the school year you have a report card, but know nothing of what tests and recommendations that will decide your child’s future in seventh grade.

Also, unfortunately, my daughter’s sixth grade teacher never got the email about the agebra readiness test, and could not recommend or give the test to any of the students in her class, even though there were several who were accomplished enough.

I haven’t found anything on the Newark websites about the math placement so to get an idea on how other district’s go about it, go to: http://jls.pausd.org/default/index.cfm/departments/mathematics/6th-to-7th-grade-math-placement/.

In Palo Alto the process of seventh grade math placement is described as a ‘collaborative effort between teachers, parents and the students themselves’. Palo Alto also has a sixth grade challenge’ site:  (http://jls.pausd.org/default/index.cfm/departments/mathematics/6th-grade-challenge/) encouraging kids to study for ‘skip 7th’ (i.e. to do Algebra in 7th grade).

Algebra I in Newark: 7th grade

In 2012 there were 54 (=12.5%) 7th graders in Algebra I, with 100% advanced or proficient on the STAR test. There were 46 (8.70%) 8th graders who took Geometry, with 98% being advanced or proficient on the ‘CST Geometry’ test. With 54 7th graders in Algebra last year, there are now 2 Geometry classes this year.

In 2011 Algebra I had 50  7th grade students (=9%), 90% who were advanced/proficient. In 2009 and 2010 there were only 16 (3.10%) and 27 (=5.4%) students in 7th grade Algebra I respectively.

You get a feeling that either the students are very good who get into Algebra, or they are boosted by getting into Algebra, or both. I’ve made a chart from STAR scores illustrating the numbers for Algebra and Geometry students 2009-2012 (see pdf file). The students seem to do very well in 7th grade Algebra,as well in 8th grade Geometry.The students set on this advanced course in Math can do Algebra II in 9th grade, Pre calculus in 10th grade, and in 11th and 12th, Calculus or Statistics.

This year our District is cutting the number of Algebra I students in 7th grade in half with only 24 spots. So even if the Algebra classes have increased (according to Superintendent Marken above), the number of spots for 7th graders is reduced from 54 to 24. It seems a pity when the numbers appear to show that a lot of 7th grade Algebra I students seem to thrive in Newark.

Different districts seem to promote 7th grade Algebra differently. For comparison Pleasanton has 21.8% (251 students) of 7th graders in Algebra, Fremont 7.7% (175), and New Haven 41.5% (396).

As a parent of a 7th grader I have to wonder: So what makes you an Algebra candidate in 7th grade? Is it the district philosophy? Are the assessment tests all the same? How many parents have their kids study for the algebra assessement? What difference does it make for your kids? When should you get information about the option of Algebra in 7th grade? Why has there not been any information?

Algebra I in Newark: Eighth grade and up

The other side of the coin is that too many kids never reach proficiency at all in algebra I. The seventh graders taking the CST Mathematics test in 2012 were 59 percent of them advanced/proficient. They go on to take algebra I in grade 8, 9, 10 or 11.

  • 8th grade: 131 students (24.8 percent) with 73 percent advanced/proficient
  • 9th grade: 339 students (64.8 percent) with  25 percent advanced/proficient
  • 10th grade: 93 students (19.2 percent) with 3 percent advanced/proficient
  • 11th grade:  70 students (13.0 percent) with 4 percent advanced/proficient

So, a majority of students never got to take algebra I in Junior High 2011-12. The majority of students do algebra I in ninth grade, and only 25 percent of them are proficient/advanced! This leaves much room for improvement. As Mr.Marken said above, the numbers will hopefully improve this year with more algebra courses in junior high and some professional development for teachers.

Language Arts advanced in Seventh Grade

Placement in English depends on the sixth grade teacher recommendations. This year there were 80 students recommended for advanced English according to Mr. Neal. All of them could not be fitted into an advanced class, because of scheduling difficulties and lack of funding. It is regrettable if this stops any students from reaching their full potential.

(On the STAR test 27 percent (121 kids) of sixth graders were advanced, 80 got a teacher recommendation, but I don’t know how many were actually placed in advanced English.)

Wanted: More information from our school district, maybe even some public discussions?

I’ve put the facts as I know them from trying to understand the Newark way of managing the junior high transition, but I haven’t been able to answer all questions. Usually the more you know, the more questions you will have. Any corrections or clarifications from the School District are welcome, and will hopefully benefit the general discussion, and help parents take part in our children’s education

(Blogger's note: I collect facts, thoughts, and links about School and Education on my website: sosnewark.org. You are welcome to visit.)


(*The founder of ‘Pacent’ explains the name on their website pacent.org: 

“Pacent originates from the phrase "Paced Ascent". When I taught 5/6 grade I used to take all of my students to the top of Half Dome each year. Some students (and adults) get a little nervous about climbing to the top. This image [see website] is the final climb after 8 miles of hiking. One of the strategies I used to encourage students to make the final push was to change their focus from the top of the rock to the next set of poles. I got approximately 120 kids to the top of Half Dome over the years by focusing on and achieving one set of poles at a time.”

When our family reached the cables to the top of Half Dome 2 years ago, we turned around. It was so crowded that the line up was at a standstill. The people coming down were weaving their way down next to the people going up. It was easy imagining someone slipping, grabbing hold of the nearest thing, and falling down, holding on to your child. Anyway, very impressive for a teacher to do a 17 mile, 10 hours round trip hike, with 30 kids, and ascending without fatalities!)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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