Parents sometimes send us things they receive from their schools that set their teeth on edge. Sometimes the things are misunderstandings and other times the things make our blood boil. We received one such letter a few days ago that still has me wishing I’d cut out the caffeine. The letter was sent in December by the fifth grade team at an elementary school in Prince William County to the parents of all 5th grade students at that school (see attached pdf).
The team starts by explaining that mastery of multiplication facts is vital for a child’s academic success, that facts are an essential part of the 3rd grade curriculum, and that they’ve realized that many of their students “do not know their multiplication facts”. The team then explains that because this mastery is so important, they’ve developed a “reward and consequence plan” that they believe will ensure the appropriate level of mastery is achieved by every student.
Before we get into the “reward and consequence plan”, let’s stop for a moment and consider what we’ve just been told. Students are supposed to master their multiplication facts in 3rd grade, per the VA SOLs, and by 5th grade, fully 2 academic years later, they haven’t. Yikes!
There are six steps to the “reward and consequence plan” the fifth grade team at this school developed: the first two are the “action” items, the next two are the rewards, and the last two are the consequences. The “action” items inform parents that their children are expected to practice their multiplication facts over the Christmas break and notify them that their children will be getting a timed test on facts on January 13. The reward items offer students who pass the test with 80% correct an additional recess and 100% correct more PE time plus the additional recess on January 20th. Any student who fails to get 80% correct will have to attend a mandatory two hour
detention study session on Saturday January 21, which will be monitored by the administration, to practice their multiplication facts. Those students will also have to take another timed test in February.
Anyone other than me have some concerns with this?
I’d like to know what changes the school has effected in their 3rd and 4th grade instructional programs to ensure that their students have actually mastered their multiplication facts when they’re supposed to as per the state Standards of Learning. To realize two years down the road that many students never achieved their grade level objectives for fluency is a travesty. Yes, they can pick it up, but they should have picked it up in 3rd grade – 4th grade at the latest.
One look at the 4th grade standards and you can see why this is such a travesty. In 4th grade students are expected to do double digit multiplication, begin long division, simplify fractions, and combine fractions with dissimilar denominators. How can you understand how any of those processes work, or complete them accurately, if you don’t know your fact families?
Yes, the state SOLs limit what our kids will be tested on to “friendly fractions”: like thirds and sixths, halves and fourths, or fourths and eights. I realize that the state does this, but why should we limit our kids? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching to a higher level of understanding rather than just having our kids do the bare minimum to pass the SOL exams?
Oh right – Prince William County only teaches to the level set by the SOL and no higher. After all, the head of the math department said she couldn’t find any instances where the SOLs were insufficient, but I digress.
This school clearly has a problem and is in freak out mode. Their students should have mastered their multiplication facts in 3rd grade and haven’t, and they’re just getting around to doing something about it when the kids are in 5th grade. But what they’re doing – a one time high stakes timed test – is the wrong way to go about it.
Mastery is built through practice and repetition, not a one time blitz. The timed test shouldn’t be a one-time high stakes thing, but something that’s done regularly in the classroom throughout the year, starting in 3rd grade. And it shouldn’t be 90 questions in 5 minutes, but 15 or 20 questions in 1 minute every day or every other day, with follow-up and intervention for kids who are struggling.
I don’t have a problem with rewards because hard work deserves to be rewarded, but I’m not sure an additional 20 minute recess and time in PE is the right approach. I guess the kids who fail will sit inside and study their multiplication facts while their classmates go outside and play, becasue so much can be accomplished in 20 minutes with kids who have been identified as the failures in the class and feel like they’re stupid. And none of the kids who passed and got an extra recess are going to tease or mock their classmates who failed.
And the mandatory
detention study session? Seriously? Ever heard of conferences? How about request a conference with the parents whose kids are struggling to develop an intervention plan with them rather than a mandatory detention study session? That way each child will have an individualized action plan that their parents will buy into and, hopefully, support.
I find this letter and the plan mind boggling.
How could the teachers have failed to realize that their students didn’t know their math facts in 3rd grade? How could the teachers have failed to realize that their students didn’t know their math facts in 4th grade? Didn’t the teachers realize that their students were struggling with concepts and operations because they didn’t know their math facts?
If mastery is the objective, why administer a one time only timed test with high stakes attached ? Why not develop a process to follow for the rest of the year in all grade levels that will ensure that students develop the skills they need in a manner that will help them retain those skills for a lifetime, rather than cramming for a one time blitz?
If the school is doing daily or weekly timed tests, with follow through and intervention for struggling students, then what’s the purpose of the one time test on January 13? Do our kids really need this much stress, especially when that stress is because the school failed and is having to play catch-up?