Balto. County schools scrap class midyear

Low-level math course didn't comply with laws

Change affected 1,600 students

Nearby counties satisfied standards last school year

April 27, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Most Baltimore County high schools were abruptly forced to replace a low-level mathematics class in the middle of this school year after district officials belatedly realized that the course didn't comply with state and federal law.

It is the second time in a month the school system has acknowledged failing to follow State Department of Education directives.

In the newest incident, teachers and principals at 21 of 24 county high schools were given a week in February to scrap the classes serving 1,600 students, including 260 with special needs.

The educators had to replace the pre-geometry classes with more rigorous geometry classes that Maryland education officials had told school systems at meetings and in mailings to institute more than a year earlier.

Baltimore County's school system was among a few that didn't follow the order. Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard county schools made the changes in time for the 2001-2002 school year, their officials said.

Baltimore County educators said they couldn't recall another time when a class was scrapped during the school year.

It meant that at the start of students' third quarter, during the winter's worst snowstorm, principals and teachers had to scramble to notify parents, adjust lesson plans and, in many classes, introduce new textbooks.

"I hear a lot of frustration" more than two months after the course was changed, said one teacher who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

"A lot of the students who took [the pre-geometry class] were placed in there because they have special needs. Their abstract ability was limited. All of a sudden, they have to step up and take a test and they're not prepared," the teacher said.

Penny Booth, the school system's coordinator of secondary mathematics, blamed the mistake on a misunderstanding of the state directive. "I guess it wasn't clear," she said. "We will take responsibility for that - I will."

Within two weeks, all high schools had established the new Foundations of Geometry classes. Booth said parents have not complained and students are prepared to take the state's standardized geometry test next month.

"We've tried to stay ahead of the curve with MSDE," Booth said, referring to the Maryland State Department of Education. "But you know how many initiatives they have coming at us."

Deputy State Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer said the delay didn't threaten Maryland's compliance with new federal laws raising standards for students.

"At this stage in the game for accountability, we've caught it at the right time," Peiffer said. "Systems want to comply with these things as they come up. We don't have a history of reluctance on the part of local school systems."

This was, however, the second time that the Baltimore County school system failed to follow state and federal law.

Last month, district officials acknowledged they didn't follow state guidelines when they ordered teachers not to read questions on the Maryland School Assessment tests to special education students who are required by federal law to get that help.

Nationally, states and school systems are dropping low-level coursework as part of a push to better prepare students for a more complicated world.

In 1996, the state revised its standards to require that all students take algebra and geometry, which are considered gateways to more advanced mathematics classes teaching higher-level thinking skills.

Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has made the push for more academic rigor a system priority, and the district has pushed struggling students into algebra.

But school system officials failed to heed repeated directives from the state to eliminate their pre-geometry classes, called Algebraic and Geometric Topics II. The classes predominantly served 10th-graders.

In August 2001, the state mailed a newsletter to school districts that said taking a Maryland geometry assessment test would be a high school graduation requirement.

"Beginning with the 2001-2002 school year, all students (regardless of grade) are required to take the high school assessments as they complete the appropriate coursework," the newsletter said. In order to take the test, students needed the class.

In March 2002, state regulations made taking the geometry test a graduation requirement.

Eight months later, the state issued another newsletter advising school systems that the changes were required by the No Child Left Behind Act, a new federal law. Violators could face state oversight of schools.

Math officials in other Baltimore-area school systems said they understood even before the first newsletter that they had to strengthen their low-level math classes.

"MSDE has done a really good job - I mean, just excellent - of getting the information out," said Kathy Kubic, acting mathematics coordinator in Anne Arundel County. "They've given us calendars years out to see what's expected."

Other officials said the state held regular meetings and repeatedly e-mailed.

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