BOE hears about curriculum changes, honors placement

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez presented the West Orange Board of Education with an update on the curriculum change for the middle school math program and the elementary school English-language arts program at the April 8 BOE meeting. De Mendez also updated the BOE on the middle school honors program, after administrators determined that some students can be exempt from taking honors placement exams.

“Our math program in grades six through eight is in the process of being evaluated, explored and considered for revision,” de Mendez said at the meeting. “In 2016-2017 we were in year one of really beginning to explore our math program at the middle school level. We currently have the Connected Math program, which is in its seventh year in the district.”

According to de Mendez, a committee of parents and teachers was formed to evaluate the current math curriculum, and the committee found that the program is no longer working for students at the middle school level.

“There was a lack of additional practice and resources for students, a lack of resources for the teachers and the teachers found themselves supplementing the program with Glencoe materials,” she said. Glencoe is another math program.

This year the committee began exploring different programs that would better serve the middle schools, and two of the five programs that were reviewed are now being piloted by middle school math teachers. De Mendez said the materials for Reveal and Ready Math were given to the district to pilot; they were not purchased. The committee will present the BOE with a final recommendation at the end of May.

“In our budget you can see there was an allotment made toward the purchase of a math program for grades six through eight,” de Mendez said. “And that is depending on which program is selected by the teachers after they have completed their piloting.”

Math teachers will receive professional development to assist them with the implementation of the new curriculum, and there will be parent workshops as well.

“There will be continued support for the teacher during the implementation, and information sessions and workshops for parents as well, so that we can really make a very strong connection between home and school,” de Mendez said. “In year one, this was one of the greatest concerns of the parents, that there were wonderings around how to best support the student with this new math.”

There was a similar process when the district was evaluating the elementary school ELA program, though de Mendez said the current curriculum will not be totally replaced.

“This came after a lot of feedback in previous years from teachers regarding the need for materials across the elementary schools to better support the program,” she said. “This is not a new program, this is not new curriculum — these are supplemental materials that are really selected by the staff to support the instruction that they have in play.”

The materials the committee chooses will be given to teachers in June, allowing them the summer to familiarize themselves with the materials and plan for the next school year. De Mendez said writing materials will be distributed next year after the reading materials have been implemented.

While discussing the middle school honors program, de Mendez stressed that the criteria to be admitted into an honors course would not change, saying only the criteria for exemption from the placement exams will change.

Currently, students who want to be in middle school honors classes have to maintain a B average in the subject, take the placement exam and writing assessment, and be recommended by a teacher. Honors subjects offered are math, science, social studies and ELA.

“Feedback and concerns from parents, from staff and from students was that all of these exams were really taking a toll and a great impact on instructional time,” de Mendez said, saying that students were taking up to four exams on top of the standardized test they were already taking. In reviewing the criteria, the administration found a correlation between assessments and honors enrollment.

“There are 956 honors seats,” de Mendez said. “Eighty percent of those 956 seats score 80 to 85 percent higher in the top levels of PARCC. We began to explore options for exempting students from the placement exams. Why? Because if they’re already scoring at these levels on assessments that are already in place, is it necessary for 956 students to take up to four honors placement exams plus district writing assessments and the other assessments that are taking place when the data already shows there’s a correlation between their honors placement and their performance?”

If the district does choose to exempt qualifying students from taking honors placement exams, de Mendez said that fewer than 200 students would have to take the tests as opposed to all 956.

“We no longer have to … say ‘Let’s shut down the day, let’s stop everything for honors placement exams,’” she said. “We can schedule the assessments for the students who are interested and we can exempt any students who are already meeting the alternate criteria.”

BOE member Cheryl Merklinger asked what the process would be for students who do not have PARCC scores, either because their parents opted them out of the test or because they moved here from another state.

“Students without a PARCC score could take the placement exams and they would move through the normal entrance criteria,” Acting Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Elizabeth Veneziano said at the meeting. “We do want to move forward to improve the process and opportunity for students each school year.”

BOE member Terry Trigg-Scales applauded the administration and committees for reevaluating the curriculum and the honors program.

“I applaud the efforts and the outcomes for reviewing consistency across schools and across classrooms,” she said at the meeting. “That’s very important and that’s not usually done on a consistent basis. I know the teachers are very excited about the prospect of getting these supplemental materials. When you talk about balanced literacy we have to make sure that there is balance and that teachers have all the materials that they need to differentiate instruction, so I’m really happy to see that we’re moving in that direction.”