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June 9, 2007

Accelerated Biology at West HS Stands Still

I have a friend who is fond of saying "never ascribe to maliciousness that which can be accounted for by incompetence." These words have become a touchstone for me in my dealings with the Madison schools. I work harder than some people might ever believe to remember that every teacher, administrator and staff person I interact with is a human being, with real feelings, probably very stressed out and over-worked. I also do my best to remember to express gratitude and give kudos where they are due and encourage my sons to do the same. But recent events regarding Accelerated Biology at West HS -- and how that compares to things I have heard are happening at one of the other high schools in town -- have stretched my patience and good will to the limit.

I first became aware of Accelerated Biology just over three years ago, when my oldest son was a second-semester 8th grader at Hamilton MS. Somehow, I learned that then-West HS Principal Loren Rathert was going to be eliminating the single section of the course that had existed for some number of years. I contacted Mr. Rathert and put the word out to 8th grade parents (and others) whom I thought would care. We wrote to Mr. Rathert and the School Board and the single section of Accelerated Biology was saved, at least for the time being. My son got into the class and had -- in a word -- a phenomenal learning experience.

For two years, the status of Accelerated Biology did not affect my family directly. And yet, by maintaining contact with the teacher and with families I know in the grade levels between my two sons, I stayed abreast of any threats to the course and I continued to lead advocacy efforts to keep Accelerated Biology intact (if not expanded). Along the way, I learned that East HS and LaFollette HS offer two or three sections of TAG/Advanced Biology (the roughly analogous course goes by different names at the different high schools), depending on yearly demand and need. (Memorial has structured its science curriculum differently, such that all 9th graders take an integrated science course; however, beginning in 10th grade, Memorial students have access to TAG and even AP science classes.) In stark contrast, the selection method at West has always been that interested 8th graders take a screening test for admission into Accelerated Biology and the top 20 scorers get in. (Four spaces have historically been reserved for a variety of "late entries" into the class.) My understanding is that the science faculty at West are as intensely divided over the very existence of Accelerated Biology as the West English faculty were over the creation of English 10. Arguments from the community that student interest and demand (and, most likely, ability) are very high (well over 100 8th graders typically take the screening test each year) and that the selection process makes the course unnecessarily selective have fallen on deaf ears. Ditto the cross-school comparison and educational equity argument.

Nevertheless, this year seemed like the right time to advocate again for a second section of Accelerated Biology at West. On a personal level, my second son was an 8th grader at Hamilton. On a broader level, there has been much talk about our high schools this year, including the needs of the District's highest ability students and important gaps in cross-school equity. Thus in December, my husband and I met with Superintendent Rainwater to talk very specifically about our younger son, his educational needs, and how West was going to meet them. Then in January, several current and future West parents met again with Art to discuss the situation at West for "high end" learners and how the SLC restructuring and concomitant curriculum changes (specifically, the 9th and 10th grade core courses) were not serving these students well. As a result of this meeting (and other behind-the-scenes advocacy efforts), West expanded and improved its system for allowing students who are advanced and talented in language arts to skip over either English 9 [rss] or English 10 [rss] (their choice). As well, in an email dated February 12, 2007, Superintendent Rainwater told me that he had followed up with West Principal Ed Holmes and that there would be an additional section of Accelerated Biology at West next year. Needless to say, this was all very good news. (Unfortunately, the dissemination of information about both of these learning opportunities was handled very, very, very poorly. I hope things go better on that front next year.)

Seventy-seven incoming West 9th graders took the Accelerated Biology screening test at the very beginning of May. This is significantly fewer test-takers than in any previous year since I have been keeping track. It is unclear if the very poor publicity and communication with parents contributed to the lower turnout.

Fast forward to this past week. After the June 4 PTSO meeting, my husband (the West PTSO Treasurer) had reason to email the Accelerated Biology teacher about PTSO funding for an incredible Earth Watch trip she is taking eight students on to Brazil this summer. As a postscript, he asked her about Accelerated Biology. She told him to contact Assistant Superintendent Pam Nash about it.

Jeff and I both wrote to Ms. Nash for an update (especially since we had heard through the grapevine that there was only going to be one section of the class after all and that the West administration didn't want the notification letters to go out until after the school year was over.) Here is my email of June 5:

Hi, Pam. We have been told by the folks at West to direct our questions about Accelerated Biology to you.

As you well know, Art and Ed have promised us two sections of Accelerated Biology at West next fall. Interested 8th graders took the screening test at the very beginning of May, over a month ago. Presumably, the tests have been scored. And yet, we have been told that the West Guidance Department does not want the letters to go out until after the school year is over. As the saying goes, "what's up with that?"

An update from you would be much appreciated.


And here is Pam's reply:
Acceptance letters went out today, June 6.

Pamela J. Nash
Assistant Superintendent
for Secondary Schools
Madison Metropolitan School District

I wrote back and thanked her for getting back to me. But the next day, June 7, I wrote to her again:
BTW, I assume there will be two sections of the class?
On June 8, I received this reply:

As you know, West High School has always had only one section of accelerated biology and used a floating score on the screener to keep it to one section. We were prepared to have two sections if scores warranted such a move. We took the median score used over time and made that the cut off. In order to have two classes we would have had to dip 20 points below that median.

That was not reasonable given the rigor of the course.


In addition to posting this email correspondence and thoughts about it on the Madison United for Academic Excellence list serve (where -- needless to say -- others shared their reactions), I wrote again to Pam Nash:
  1. What is the range of scores on the screening test? I ask this question because the range provides context for understanding what 20 points really means on the screener.

  2. What are the numbers/scores that have identified the top 20 scorers in the past several years? (Can you simply list them out for me?)
  3. What was the score used this year?
Pam, I think the selection method may have guaranteed that only one class worth of students would make the cut.

Think about it. If you use a measure of central tendency (in this case, the median -- though I wonder if you actually meant the mean) on the distribution of numbers that has cut off the top 20 scorers over the years, assuming that the same test instrument was used and that the distribution of test scores over the years has been fairly similar, then wouldn't that number -- the median cut-score -- tend to identify the same number of students for admission this year as have been identified in previous years?

Or think of it this way --

Say each year the 85th percentile score (approximately) is used to identify those top 20 students who will be allowed into the Accelerated Biology class. If you create a distribution of the 85th percentile scores over the course of several years, compute a measure of central tendency for that distribution, and then use the resulting number as the cut score for a new distribution of scores (that is, this year's scores), you will cut off approximately the top 15% of the new distribution.

I think the only way that this would not happen -- that is, the only way that more students would have been identified this year (enough for two sections) -- is if the distribution of this year's scores was very negatively skewed (i.e., included a lot more high-scoring students than previous years' distributions).

If my reasoning is correct, then the second section Art assured us would happen back in February never had a chance. As well, "rigor" is being defined as "that which is done by the top 20 students over the years," and not by the course or the screener.

It seems to me that the priority was not to create a second section of Accelerated Biology; the priority was to maintain the status quo and to not allow more students access to greater intellectual challenge.

I hope you will reconsider this decision.


And that, folks, is where it currently stands, though I have remembered that -- at the time of the screening test -- a parent I know was told by someone on the West staff, when she asked about who would teach the second section of Accelerated Biology, "if there is a need for a second section," the teacher of the first section had been asked to do it. "If there is a need for a second section ... ?" Hmmmmm.

I promised a cross-school comparison, aimed at putting my frustration with these recent events at West into sharper relief. Here it is. About a month ago, an East HS friend wrote this to me:

Laurie -- It has been a wearing year in a number of respects, so I want to pass along a couple of positive things I learned at last night's East High United meeting. First, despite the allocation cuts, Alan Harris cobbled together the funds for a position that is half-time literacy coordinator and half-time TAG coordinator. Since I gather it's been awhile since schools have been putting new resources into TAG, this seems notable. Also, Alan also said that East would be instituting an AVID program next year. I hadn't heard of this but it sounds great -- it identifies about 25 kids from each freshmen class with some academic promise but who have been underachieving, and who typically would be the first from their families to go to college. It works with the kids to improve their study skills and other habits with the goal the by their junior and senior year they'll be taking TAG and AP classes and will then go on to college. It's the best way to attack the achievement gap -- help kids in the middle or lower pull themselves up to the top. Here's a link I found to a website the described the program. So a few rays of sunshine cutting through the clouds.
Doesn't the AVID program (not to mention a school-based half time TAG coordinator) sound incredible? Wouldn't it be a welcome addition at any of our high schools?

In that vein, I'd like to say that practically every substantive letter I have written to the Superintendent, School Board and West HS administration about "TAG" issues over the past several years has included a plea to expand access and diversity of participation. I know that many other West area parents have made similar arguments, pointing out time and time again that when these learning opportunities are taken away, it is the high ability and high potential students of color and poverty who suffer the most (a point that research confirms). I would also like to remind readers that Jeff and I are the ones who first brought Donna Ford to Madison in early 2005 and that we are the ones who brought and have kept the District dropout data from the late 1990's into public view. I also recently thanked Jim Z for reminding us of the words of the West math teachers in their April, 2004, letter to the editor of Isthmus:

Rather than addressing the problems of equity and closing the gap by identifying minority ... talent earlier and fostering minority participation in the accelerated programs, our administration wants to take the cheaper way out by forcing all kids into a one-size-fits-all curriculum. It seems the administration and our school board have re-defined "success" as merely "producing fewer failures." Astonishingly, excellence in student achievement is visited by some school district administrators with apathy at best, and with contempt at worst. But, while raising low achievers is a laudable goal, it is woefully short-sighted and, ironically, racist in the most insidious way. Somehow, limiting opportunities for excellence has become the definition of providing equity! Could there be a greater insult to the minority community?
I guess my bottom line here is that I do not understand first, how West can get away with what it is getting away with and second, why there are these fundamental and frustrating differences between the attitude and programming at our high schools? Parents and teachers at East have made it clear that they do not want to become like West. West parents and teachers have been sounding an alarm over the 9th and 10th grade core curriculum and arguing for an expansion of West's most rigorous learning opportunities, combined with substantive efforts (starting well before high school) to identify and support high potential learners from all backgrounds. And yet the differences between the schools persist. It's probably paranoid to wonder if maybe the Administration is working to maintain the East-West differences (and the East-West stereotypes) for its own "divide-and-conquer" purposes. Right?

In October, 2005, MUAE guest speaker Jan Davidson encouraged us to be "pleasantly persistent" in our advocacy work. I have tried hard to do just that. But I must say, it's feeling pretty difficult to maintain that attitude right now.

Posted by Laurie Frost at June 9, 2007 1:14 PM
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