Mathematics Opinion

Can a Math Curriculum Audit Improve Student Achievement in Math?

By Jal Mehta — October 17, 2016 5 min read
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This post is by Jake Fishbein, Director of Instruction, Capital City Public Charter School

“I don’t know what it’s going to take!” A colleague told me as she we reviewed PARCC assessment data this past summer. “My teachers are working their hearts out. My students are engaged. Why can’t we break through the low ceiling when it comes to our math performance?” As a school leader, she was clearly frustrated that despite years of hard and thoughtful work, the needle wasn’t moving.

Capital City Public Charter School, a diverse title-one school in the District of Columbia has been a member of the EL Education Network since our founding in 2000. We serve a student body of over 900 students ranging from pre-K3 to 12 grade. Our school strongly emphasizes project-based learning, arts integration and character development. We have also been working to unpack the Common Core State Standards for several years. The depth and rigor of the Common Core align well with our Learning Expeditions, semester long, interdisciplinary studies of real-world topics. We have developed benchmark assessments to measure student performance on key math standards. We thought we had made all the right moves. Then the results came back.

While our students had made sizable gains in English Language Arts, mathematics was still moving at a snail’s pace. Of course, our initial results didn’t tell the whole story. While it was helpful to dig into the specific student results, grade-levels and cohorts, the “Aha” moment came when we looked at the less familiar PARCC’s mathematics sub-claims. These refer to ways that students’ mathematical abilities are weighed in the actual PARCC assessment, including:

1. Major Content (26-31 points of the test): “The student solves problems involving the Major Content for her grade/course with connections to the Standards for Mathematical Practice.”

2. Additional and Supporting Content (9-14 points of the test): “The student solves problems involving the Additional and Supporting Content for her grade/course with connections to the Standards for Mathematical Practice.”

3. Reasoning (14 points of the test): “The student expresses grade/course-level appropriate mathematical reasoning by constructing viable arguments, critiquing the reasoning of others, and/or attending to precision when making mathematical statements.”

4. Modeling (12 points of the test): “The student solves real-world problems with a degree of difficulty appropriate to the grade/course by applying knowledge and skills articulated in the standards for the current grade/course (or for more complex problems, knowledge and skills articulated in the standards for previous grades/courses), engaging particularly in the Modeling practice, and where helpful making sense of problems and persevering to solve them (MP. 1), reasoning abstractly and quantitatively (MP. 2), using appropriate tools strategically (MP.5), looking for and making use of structure (MP.7), and/or looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning (MP.8).”

At first, this information seemed complicated and removed from the essential practices of teaching and learning. Then, at a workshop sponsored by Washington DC’s State Superintendent of Education, Hanseul Kang, my colleagues and I dove deeply into the claims and how they related to PARCC. We learned that each claim held a different point value in regards to PARCC. A light bulb flashed and a question formed: “How much time do our teachers spend on Major Content vs. Additional and Supporting Content?”

The question led me to lock myself in my office with our 6th grade math curriculum. The 25-page document included an overarching philosophy, standards, dates, instructional practice, assessments, notes for scaffolding, some ambiguous information about guest speakers and field trips, etc. I got to work with a handy whiteboard and dry erase marker. My first goal was to isolate the standards and time spent on them. After making a timeline for the year, I blocked off chunks of time that corresponded with specific standards. I colored coded the Major Content standards red and the Additional and Supporting Content standards green. I stood back.

We had a very green curriculum. Approximately 60% of the year was focused on Additional and Supporting Content. In fact, much of the red appeared after the PARCC had been administered. For example, in the two months preceding PARCC, the class focused on geometry and statistics standards which are considered “Additional Content.” I also noted several major content areas were not included at all in the weeks leading up to PARCC. Our curriculum, while based upon the Common Core standards, was not aligned to the weight given to the standards. We were going to need a complete review of every grade from third through eighth. But how?

I showed my findings to our instructional coaches. I knew that for this information to matter, it would need to be unpacked with our teachers and curriculum coaching staff. To deepen our teachers’ understanding of the standards and simultaneously revise curriculum maps, we asked our math teams to review and audit their own curriculum maps using the document created by Student Achievement Partners that differentiates Major and Additional Content area, and the spreadsheet that simplified and coded our standards in a simple timeline. When the audits were in, it was clear that Major Content was not getting its fair share of attention. With this information in hand, teachers got to workadjusting their curriculum maps to emphasize the major content throughout the year, while ensuring that additional and supporting content still added continuity and variety. Our teachers would continue to emphasize the critical thinking that lifted up Reasoning and Modeling as a strength, but they would re-emphasize the Major Content subclaims, balancing our students’ math diet.

Now it is October. There are many months until PARCC so we cannot yet see the outcome of our collective work. Through this process, however, we have learned a few things. First, not all standards are made equal. A quality curriculum map is about applying the right amount of leverage in the the right places. The Student Achievement Partners’ documents are a tremendous resource in taking the guess work out of which standards to spend more energy on throughout the year. Second, curriculum maps are great for guiding instruction but a nightmare as auditing documents. Developing a one-page overview that focused on time, standard and sub-claim allowed us to keep our attention focused. Third ,our collaborative approach, inspired by that first “aha” data moment, gave us shared accountability for focusing students on the standards most likely to lead them to success in college and careers. By strategically shifting our instruction we hope we’ll finally raise the bar for our math scores.

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