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Teachers face math challenge

Strategize to aid middle schoolers

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2011
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At Atlantic Middle School in Quincy, the math teachers do not panic when confronted with their students’ below-average MCAS scores. They know how to read between the numbers.

“It’s not only about the MCAS test; it’s about preparing for next year and trying to instill a love of math in them,’’ said Mary Lydon, a teacher of seventh- and eighth-graders with a zeal for mathematical concepts. “Because we all know math is the best.’’

In Quincy, 25 percent of eighth-graders failed the math portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam in spring 2011, according to results released this fall. Twenty-three percent of seventh-graders failed the math section. Those scores are slightly below the state average but reflect a trend: Across Massachusetts, MCAS scores in the math portion of the test are lowest during middle-school years.

Educators in Quincy say the district’s middle-school MCAS math scores have remained steady for several years, as have the much better scores earned by 10th-graders, with a 95 percent success rate, in the math section last spring.

“Learning might not show up as mastery in seventh and eighth grade, but we are providing students with a foundation and they build off it and show mastery in 10th grade,’’ said Lydon.

“The MCAS is a snapshot,’’ said Atlantic’s principal, Maureen MacNeil. “We have strong performing students.’’

Recently, MacNeil and the Quincy school district’s assessments specialist, Mary Fredrickson, joined several math teachers around a conference table at the Atlantic school to discuss what they believe is going on, mathwise, in the middle-school mind.

“We’re assessing on a daily basis,’’ said Fredrickson, describing how middle-school math teachers are constantly asking themselves, “What is coming next? Does our curriculum align?’’

One Atlantic math teacher, Tim Ryan, described the long-range goals held by teachers. “It’s not just about the scores,’’ he said. “We look at each individual student. Even if the scores do not match, we know when they make progress - socially, emotionally, academically - that will help them achieve future academic success.’’

The educators emphasized the need for a teacher-student dialogue, the capacity to see when “the light bulb goes on’’ and when a young person requires a different teaching approach. They said imparting mathematics to young people in this age bracket is about building strong relationships, helping them to grasp difficult, often abstract, concepts.

“I don’t think you become a middle-school math teacher because you love fractions,’’ said Tim Daley, also a teacher at the Atlantic. He described the ways he seeks to motivate his students, to apply math to real-life situations, to make it fun to find the least common multiple.

But why do students struggle at this juncture - the same ones who score decently, with well above 80 percent passing, in MCAS math testing at the elementary school level?

Educators said the topsy-turvy concerns of adolescence are part of it.

“Students are dealing with a lot of social anxiety and peer pressure at this age,’’ said MacNeil, adding that the Atlantic school is constantly monitoring achievement levels and areas of strength and concern. She described the four days per year dedicated to such assessment, which involves analyzing data from previous years, and adjusting teaching practices.

“Developmentally, students are at different stages,’’ added Lydon. “Some algebraic concepts can be abstract at this age.’’

Ryan agreed. “It’s true that some students struggle with abstract concepts. For instance, some students just don’t understand fractions; they don’t understand that concept of something as part of a whole. Other students struggle with computations - they have different learning styles,’’ he said.

“Lots of students at this age like a fast and quick answer,’’ said Lydon. “We have kids who are used to mental math strategies that have worked for them. Now they must solve an equation step-by-step. They must develop the habit of writing down all the steps sequentially.’’

All of the teachers said they are looking forward to the state Department of Education’s plans to alter math standards at the elementary school level, emphasizing a more in-depth focus on fewer areas rather than the current broad but brief introduction to a variety of concepts, which one teacher described as “a mile wide and ankle deep.’’

The educators also noted “little hiccups’’ in MCAS testing, such as altered vocabulary, that can make a difference for students. For instance, a significant number of sixth-graders missed one MCAS question last spring that involved the prime factorization of a number, said Ryan. In class, he said, students had been asked questions such as, “What is the prime factorization of 84?’’

On the MCAS test, the same students were asked: “Write 84 as a product of prime numbers.’’ The lack of the word “factor’’ left some students at a loss.

“A lot of kids don’t always make that synthesis and understand what they must do, so many fell short on that question,’’ Ryan said.

“The student understands the concept, but in a testing situation the student is not able to show what they know,’’ said Fredrickson. “It’s important to remember that we are assessing all the time. The MCAS assessment is two days of the year.’’

On the Quincy School Committee, which interprets test data and sets policy, the recent MCAS scores led several members, including Barbara Isola, to ask for more information about the middle-school math gap.

“We want to really get into the data and see what we need to do to help students,’’ said Isola. “What do we do with these numbers?’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at

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