Wednesday, June 8, 2011

District blames Celesta for gaps in math skills - (part 2)

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is part 2 of a series of articles on Celesta, a grade-11 student in Spokane, WA. I interviewed her for a June 4 episode of “Cut to the Chase,” a local radio show hosted by Rob Chase for the ACN Network. Part 1 of the series described Celesta as lacking multiple basic skills in mathematics. Part 3 will discuss community efforts to help students like Celesta ... and the district’s response to those efforts.]

Celesta is an 11th grader in Spokane Public Schools who carried a 3.6 GPA, got As in all of her math classes, passed all of her math tests and who did so well she was placed last fall into honors pre-calculus. Unfortunately, she and many of her pre-calculus classmates lack proficiency in basic math skills (including long division, multiplication facts, the number line, and fractions).

Over a few days, I called Spokane’s middle and elementary schools to find out how they would help students like Celesta. I didn’t do anything silly like go undercover or assume a pseudonym; I just called them all as a concerned community member, offered my first name and gave them the scenario noted above. Then I asked them, “How do (I, you, we) help these students?”

You won’t believe what I was told.

Most district employees expressed concern, but it often came out in accusatory, unhelpful ways. Most had nothing to offer students like Celesta. There usually was a long pause on the other end of the line after I described her situation. Several expressed doubt about the truth of the scenario.

“How could that be?” they asked.
“I would just be appalled if that were true,” a high school counselor said.

I don’t understand their shock and surprise. The counselor who said he would be appalled should already be appalled that his school had a pass rate on the 2010 state math test of less than 30%. Students needed just 56.9% to pass that basic-skills test, and more than 70% of the 10th graders at his school couldn’t do it. The district’s overall pass rate for 10th grade math was just 38.9%. Four of the six middle schools had pass rates of less than 50% on the 8th-grade math test; two were at less than 40%.

Either these counselors and administrators already know of the low pass rates and of the district’s policy of socially promoting students regardless of what they've learned … or they don’t know. Why on Earth wouldn't they know? It’s their job to know.

So I took a deep breath and assured them calmly that the girl is real, her story is true, and I was wondering what the district had in place to help students like her. Nearly all recommended that she be tested for learning disabilities.

I haven’t tested Celesta for a learning disability. I have only tested her for proficiency in basic math skills, and she tested into 5th-grade math. It does seem odd that she would be in honors pre-calculus, with a 3.6 GPA, having passed all of her tests and with straight As in math – if a learning disability had kept her from learning basic math skills.

A middle-school counselor said something must have “slipped" Celesta's mind before she hit the pre-calculus class. I’ve heard that wild assumption before. Other administrators claim it about other students, also without proof, and in 2010, an administrator at Spokane Falls Community College said the math problem at SFCC isn’t because students didn’t learn enough math in K-12 – it was because they’d just forgotten it.

According to Celesta, at least half of her class has the same problem. Her pre-calculus teacher must continually stop teaching pre-calculus, she said, so he can teach basic skills. He showed them long division. He showed them the number line so they could subtract a negative. I asked the district employees: Did ALL of these honors students just forget? This observation was met with more silence.

A middle school principal talked about how poverty is such an issue for the students. This is the district’s go-to answer for student outcomes. In February, a district employee stated at one of my community forums that if we fixed the poverty problem, we would fix the math problem. But I had said nothing to anyone about Celesta’s home life. I asked Celesta for her reaction, and she was offended.

“I’m not that poor,” she said. “I’ve always had everything I needed. For someone to tell me I’m failing because I’m poor, that’s a little ridiculous.”

While there are strong correlations between family income and student achievement, poverty isn’t the problem with math. We could give every low-income family a million dollars and this district’s math program still wouldn’t have enough math in it. I noted to Celesta that lower-income families have fewer resources to pay for tutoring and outside help, and she expressed frustration.

“I don’t see why we need tutoring if the school is doing their job,” she said. “Why do I need to go to Sylvan to learn what [the district] should be teaching me? Why do I need extra help? Why aren’t they just teaching [it to me] in the first place?”

Why indeed? Why do district counselors and school administrators not have a firm grasp of the depth of the district’s deficiencies in math? “How can that be?” I kept hearing. Do they not see the low pass rates? Do they not see students struggle and fail, yet get passed through – and even be placed into advanced math classes? Do they not know about the district’s high remedial rates and dropout rates? Do they not see the district-wide anxiety over math, and the district-wide dearth of procedural skill? They should because I see it, and I don’t get paid taxpayer money to see it.

A high school counselor then decided Celesta must have been cheating to get her 3.6 GPA if she now has issues in pre-calculus. Startled, I said, “Pardon me?” He said, “Yeah, she must have cheated or lied. Or, maybe,” he added helpfully, “she’s had a traumatic brain injury.”

I asked Celesta for her reaction.

“It makes me feel sad that they’d jump to that conclusion,” she said. “I know I’m a good student. I know I work hard. I know that I’m smart and that it’s really hard for me right now that I’m struggling. And for someone to tell me that I have a learning disability or my brain has been damaged because I don’t know math because I wasn’t taught? It’s pretty hurtful. It’s not my fault. I have to go to public school every day. That’s what I have to do. It’s not my choice to be there, and it’s not my choice to do the lesson plan. I’m learning what they’re teaching me. If I’m not learning it … when I am a very attentive student, and I’m there, and I’m trying … Is it my fault?”

Celesta said there never was any indication that she or her classmates were struggling, that they had learning issues, or that there were gaps in skills. This year has been a shock. It isn’t that pre-calculus is so hard, she said. It’s just become clear to her that she and many classmates are missing basic math skills that they need to be successful in that class. She fought hard and wound up with a final grade of C.

“Even if I study really hard, and I go in and get help, and I get extra help from my old math teacher,” she said, “I just seem to always hit a 60% on all my tests, no matter how confident I feel about them. … Before this year, everything was fine. I would get my tests back and maybe I’d get a 3 out of a four, and that still isn’t very OK with me. I always strive to do the best. Usually, I’d go in and try and retake, but in pre-calculus we cannot retake tests. That’s what really kills me. I can’t try again. … I just have to accept that I’m failing.”

Well, I don’t accept it.

I’ve found that it takes about two months, an hour a day, five days a week, to properly tutor a student through one grade level in K-8 math. Celesta is missing about six years of basic skills. She’s leaving for the summer, and I’ll try to help her by email. It will be a challenge. She’s 17, and it’s the summer, and she’s visiting family. We plan to connect when she comes back in the fall. It’s daunting, but I’m willing to fight for her if she’s willing to fight for herself.

Math was always a strong suit for Celesta, one of her favorite classes. Now, she isn’t interested in taking any more math classes. But if she doesn’t, her dream of earning a business degree is over.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is
Rogers, L. (June 2011). "District blames Celesta for gaps in math skills - (part 2)." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 9, 2011 on at:

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