Eager for harder math challenges, middle schoolers head to AHS
Gifted middle school students ventured into unfamiliar territory recently to study math in the larger world of high school.”It’s a bit of an experiment,” said Mike Wessler, who teaches math to eighth-graders at Aspen Middle School.The experiment is part of an attempt to address concerns about the district’s math program, and to target learning to the level of individual students.Accelerated programs are new in math, but are old hat at the middle school. Advanced middle school students have studied French and Spanish next door at the high school for the past two years, said Wessler. “Foreign language has been an open door between the middle school and high school,” he said.Educators see it as a way to take advantage of the proximity the schools enjoy on the Aspen campus.”For us, since we’re right next door, it’s a real natural movement,” said Aspen School District Superintendent Diane Sirko.Scott Lacy knotted a gauzy red scarf dotted with smiley faces around his head as he left Susan McKinney’s math class. Tuesday was “Decade Day” at AHS, and the 13-year-old middle school student wore the scarf and some big tortoise-shell sunglasses to the high school for his 1960s costume.”It’s pretty amazing they can do this,” said Lacy. “I think it’s about time.”He was bored in the middle school math classes, where the material is “pounded in” after it’s been introduced, he said. Because he has an easy time with math, he didn’t need the additional drills.”It was awkward the first day,” Lacy said of the change, mainly because he and other middle school students joined the class a month into the new school year. But, he added, “it’s getting better every day.”This year, Wessler was able to bump up students recommended by the school’s gifted programs coordinator into more challenging classes.Instead of preparing for algebra with their peers, students who demonstrated they already knew the material will now sharpen their skills in advanced algebra.Focus on improvementResults from a district accountability survey showed parents and students want more differentiation in the classroom, based on the skill level, in order to avoid “teaching to the middle.”The survey also showed some dissatisfaction with the district’s math programs at the high school and middle school.”Our math scores and the ability of our students upon entering college-level courses are miserable,” wrote one parent on the survey.Math scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test are a concern in the district, where 92 percent of ninth-graders met the proficiency standard in language skills compared to about a 54 percent proficiency in math.Last year, only 32 percent of Aspen ninth-graders made proficient CSAP scores. Eighth-graders performed better at 59 percent, but lost two percentage points from their results in 2003.Sirko said Colorado’s math assessment test is the third hardest in the nation. Although proficiency scores ranging from 30 percent to as high as 61 percent for grades seven through 10 seem low, they compare favorably with statewide averages. Colorado ninth- and 10th-graders scored only between 27 percent and 32 percent proficient in 2003 and 2004.”It will take awhile to align test expectations and what kids know,” said Sirko.Teachers from the elementary and middle schools recently told school board members how they planned to raise scores and address concerns. This year sixth- and seventh-graders learn math everyday, instead of three days a week, as in the past. Teachers hope to extend the change to eighth-graders soon.Wessler said he divided eighth-graders into five math classes this year working at three different levels. He sorted the class based on the advice of seventh-grade teachers, CSAP scores and results from Terra Nova, a standardized test that evaluates the grade level of students’ abilities.For the students who are struggling with math, Wessler plans to use a period known as “flex time” for remedial classes. While a third of the students go off to band or choir classes, Wessler will work with the bottom math performers.”I will handpick 12 or 13 kids I want in this class,” said Wessler.A $40,000 grant from the Aspen Education Foundation will be used in the schools this year for remedial programs. Sirko said the district will use the money to pay substitute teachers for additional tutoring time. The middle school has decided to use its entire share of $15,000 for math programs.Two of Wessler’s math students this year are fifth-graders who showed enough promise to study with the oldest kids in their school. “The social aspect has not been a problem,” said Wessler. “Next year these sixth-graders will probably need to go to the high school.”Lacy said he needed a little help finding his way around the high school last week. His sister is a sophomore, and Lacy already has friends at the high school who stopped by to chat with him as he sat on a bench in the hallway after class.With an easy smile and confident manner, the eighth-grader seemed to fit right in. Inside the class, the son of a math teacher said, “It is challenging, and it’s fun. It’s moving a lot faster.”
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