Math Placement: A Tale of Two Districts

Math placement involves assigning students to a math class that best aligns with their skills and current knowledge. The default placement is grade level: 8th grade students take 8th grade math. But at every school, some students have advanced beyond their peers while others suffer from significant deficiencies. To meet the needs of both groups, schools offer accelerated classes and intervention classes. Accelerated classes are usually a year or so ahead of grade level and take the place of the regular math class. Intervention classes are usually taken in addition to regular math and worked into students’ schedules as an elective.

I’ve taught math classes, including 7th grade accelerated math, regular 8th grade math, 8th grade math intervention, and 9th grade algebra to 8th graders, in two different districts with two very different means of math placement.

In the first district, if standard district policies for advanced middle school math placement exist, they are little known and rarely followed. At my former middle school in the district, the selection process relied more than anything on teachers’ recommendations. And each teacher could decide for themselves how they weighed grades, standardized tests, even behavior, in choosing students for advanced classes.

To identify students for intervention classes, the district identifies students in each grade level who are within two or three correct answers of achieving the next higher proficiency level on the state standardized test. The selected students have an elective they’ve chosen replaced with math intervention for the rest of the year. As a teacher I was never asked which students I thought could benefit from interventions, and parents weren’t consulted until after the fact. As I wrote in Striking Out With Math Interventions:

[It] appears a pretty cynical way to select students for intervention: If we could just get them over the proficiency hump, our school’s letter grade would go up. That will help my school and district. Plus, higher scores improve my evaluation and increase my performance pay, and that helps me. But how does it advance the interest of the students? All-in-all, it smells like a thinly-veiled attempt to use students as tools to promote adults’ self-interests.

The second district uses five data points to determine a student’s math placement: the end of semester and end of year scores on district-wide finals, the end of semester and end of year overall math grades, and teacher recommendation. Students achieving above a district wide standard on four of the five data points move into an advanced class the next year. Scores on state standardized tests are not considered.

For placing students in math interventions, counselors, administrators, and grade level teachers meet at the beginning of the year to identify which children would best benefit. Decisions are based on the previous year’s work (including state tests), current teacher’s input, and parent support. The intervention classes start with five students who meet on Monday and Tuesday and five who meet on Thursday and Friday (those numbers can grow to 10, as student need is demonstrated). Only on those days do they miss their elective. As we near the end of the quarter at my school, we’re determining which students could benefit by staying in interventions, which are ready to exit, and which new students might benefit from a quarter of interventions.

At my previous school in the first district we had something over 400 middle school students and struggled to fill one algebra class and one accelerated class each in 6th and 7th grade math. If I remember correctly, we had two interventions classes at each grade level.

At my new middle school in the second district we have something over 600 students and have filled one 6th grade accelerated class, two 7th grade accelerated classes, two 9th grade algebra classes, one 10th grade geometry class, and six 8th graders are transported to the high school every day for 11th grade algebra 2. One on my 7th grade advanced classed has one 5th grader, twenty-one 6th graders, and one 7th grader. It might be the most intellectually stimulated (and simulating) group of children I’ve ever worked with. (My other 7 accel class with mostly 7th graders might be a close second.) We have one intervention class at each grade level.

The goal of any district is to equip its students with the math knowledge they’ll need for the next year. Effective policies for determining what math level students should be in this year is a huge step toward reaching that goal. At least one district has figured out how to do that.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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