Meet Jasmine, a tenth-grade student in Orlando. She lives at her grandmother’s house with her mom, an administrative assistant by day and nail technician on weekends, two energetic little brothers, and a cat. When she doesn’t have to babysit, Jasmine cleans cages at the local pet store for minimum wage. She loves animals and hopes to be a veterinarian one day.
Jasmine doesn’t realize it yet, but her postsecondary pathway is going to take longer than it should have. See, Jasmine completed Algebra I in the ninth grade, meaning she has fewer credits available for advanced math and science than her peers who took Algebra I in eighth grade as is recommended.
A Stealthy Regression
The thing is, Jasmine is actually pretty good at math when she applies herself. In the fourth grade, she earned a level 4 on the state math assessment (placing her in the 85th percentile). But fifth grade was hard on Jasmine. Her parents separated that year, and she found it difficult to focus on schoolwork. She didn’t raise her hand to ask questions like she usually would, so her misconceptions followed her to the state assessment where she slipped to a high level 3.
Neither Jasmine nor her sixth-grade math teacher noted her slide in fifth grade. This crucial context had not followed her to middle school, and consequently, Jasmine wasn’t on her sixth-grade teacher’s radar. She was likeable, seemed to be paying attention, turned in her homework on time, and provided mostly correct answers when asked to participate. But in reality, she was zoning out, bored, and not understanding why learning math was going to matter in the real world.
Upon completion of sixth grade, Jasmine was invited to attend Central Florida Middle School’s pizza party for students who earned a “learning gain” on the state math assessment. What her teacher and principal didn’t know is Jasmine’s score wasn’t something to celebrate at all: her increase of 2 scale score points actually amounted to a loss of 15 percentile points in her national ranking. In just two years, Jasmine had fallen from the 85th percentile in fourth grade to the 48th percentile in sixth grade—from great math student to below average.
Jasmine’s seventh-grade math teacher wasn’t aware of this background. To be honest, with 120 students to contend with, a level 3 student who wasn’t a behavior challenge did not receive much attention. Jasmine lived into her teacher’s low expectations of her by failing to master several key concepts through the course of the year. When Jasmine barely missed the cutoff for level 3 on the state assessment, that seemed about right to him. He did not recommend her for eighth-grade Algebra.
As she started eighth-grade math, Jasmine quickly figured out it was designed for “remedial learners,” solidifying for her that she was “not a math person.” Once again, she didn’t put forth her full effort and ended the year with a low level 2 on the assessment. Now ranked in the 25th percentile, she had dropped a total of 60 percentile points over four years!
A Turning Point
On her first day of ninth grade, Jasmine was horrified to discover her intensive Algebra I class was 120 minutes, two full periods of her least favorite subject! But it was here that her trajectory would begin to change. She had been assigned to Ms. Knight, one of the highest-growth teachers in the state.
Ms. Knight made it a point to get to know Jasmine, how she felt about math and why she struggled. She demonstrated a belief that Jasmine was fully capable of making up for lost time by not wasting a moment of it in class. She helped Jasmine finally understand what was at stake in life if she did not learn the material. Jasmine began to experience the satisfaction that comes with persisting through a problem to find a solution. At the end of a very challenging year, she was one of the 75% of students in Ms. Knight’s class to pass the end-of-course assessment on the first try.
Jasmine was extraordinarily lucky—most students never have a teacher like Ms. Knight who pulls them back from the brink. It is rare for a teacher to be able to grab the attention of a high school student who feels defeated, rebuild their confidence, and cover all of the content needed for the state assessment while filling in the gaps that have been accumulating over years.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Jasmine ended up in ninth-grade Algebra 1 largely because her academic trajectory went unnoticed for years by the people best positioned to influence it—Jasmine, her teachers, and her parents.
As early as first grade, we can equip teachers with multi-year academic histories for each of their students. And we can empower those teachers to use these histories with their students to set meaningful goals, make mutual commitments, and possibly have a hand in changing the arc of their students’ life stories.
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