“We will have a different math curriculum in place next fall,” says TVHS Principal Frank Spencer. “We want people to know it’s gone, and it’s not just a change in name, it’s a change in focus on the essential elements of algebra, trigonometry, and geometry.”
IMP may sound like a mythical mischievous sprite, but it’s an acronym for the Interactive Math Program, a language-based, integrated math curriculum introduced at Wilmington High School in 2001. But like the imp of superstition, the math program has caused headaches for parents, students and, ultimately, school officials. Some parents have appeared before the Twin Valley School Board to demand that students have the option of traditional math courses. One of the reasons parents didn’t like IMP, Spencer says, is that it was difficult for them to help their students. “With a traditional text you get five pages per night, three of which explained the math concept, and then you had a page and a half of problems. Even if parents didn’t have strong math skills, they could go back a couple of pages and figure out what’s going on. We couldn’t find an effective way to support parents who wanted to help their kids.”
Others have charged that Twin Valley students educated under IMP haven’t fared well on college placement tests and, like most Vermont schools, Twin Valley has also struggled with standardized math tests. Spencer says that’s the primary reason for the change.
IMP was originally introduced to address weaknesses in students’ performance on standardized tests, specifically the state-mandated New Standards Reference Examination (NSRE). Spencer says many of the NSRE math questions were language-based, and required a written explanation of the math process. “On the NSRE math test you might open the test booklet and see a page with two sentences at the top, and the rest of the page was blank for you to write down the process as you go. If you couldn’t explain in a clear manner, you didn’t get a good score.”
Additionally, Spencer says, IMP addressed the age-old question, “How will I use this in the real world?” The “I” in IMP refers to the integration of math skills – students learn how to apply a variety of fundamental math skills to resolve problems in a complex scenario. “The concept is good,” says Spencer. “The problem is that students didn’t get as solid a foundation in essential skills as they needed.”
Several years ago, Vermont’s NSRE was scrapped for a regional standardized test, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test. Since then, the math department has made changes in the IMP curriculum to address weaknesses in student performance. But the changes may not have gone far enough. Spencer says that, as anecdotal evidence suggested earlier in the program, some IMP students were having difficulty in college placement tests – something confirmed by Accuplacer tests administered by TVHS. “About two and a half years ago we began to notice that some students who did very well in high school math were taking college placement tests and had to take remedial math,” Spencer says. “Data from Accuplacer tests were telling us kids who were doing well in third- or fourth-year math were having difficulty with algebra, trigonometry, and geometry skills. Some of it was in terminology, but we also discovered, ‘Ah! This is what they want kids to do.’”
Now, in a process that began last year, TVHS math teachers Russell Mayhew and Kelly Marrone have developed a program that addresses the weaknesses identified through standardized testing like the NECAP. Some of the changes have already been instituted at TVHS, but beginning next year, the school will no longer be teaching the IMP curriculum.
While the new curriculum does integrate some of the strategies found in IMP, Spencer says the change is more than a “hybridization” of IMP with traditional math. But the new curriculum also isn’t a return to the traditional algebra/trigonometry/calculus math classes. Spencer notes that schools statewide are struggling with unsatisfactory math scores on standardized tests. While Twin Valley’s 2009 math scores show that only 11% of students met the standard in math, statewide only 35% met the standard. “If the majority of the schools are using traditional math, and two-thirds of Vermont students aren’t meting the standard, maybe traditional math isn’t working, either,” Spencer says. “Neither traditional math nor IMP met our goals the way they should, so we’re bringing the two together, focusing on a solid foundation of math skills, and the application of those skills in problem solving.”
Spencer acknowledges that TVHS’s math scores on this year’s NECAP are cause for concern, although he notes that one low score, in one year, doesn’t reflect the performance of the entire school. “This year’s math scores aren’t necessarily representative of math scores in the school as a whole,” he says. Spencer will offer an in-depth look at this year’s scores at an upcoming Twin Valley School Board meeting.
The math department conducted a detailed evaluation of NECAP results before developing the new math program. But Spencer says there are a number of reasons the high school math NECAPs are hard to interpret.
“For high school students, there is no incentive for them to give their best effort,” Spencer says. “Some students may underachieve because they don’t care, or don’t take the test seriously. Some might do some of the problems, but when it comes to one that looks hard, they might skip it.”
One way to counter student apathy, Spencer says, is to offer a reward for good scores or punishment for poor performance.