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Worcester board of ed gets update on evolving math instruction 

As the school system struggles with math results, the Worcester County Board of Education recently heard a presentation on the complexities and rigors of instruction.

OCES-first day-'23

Ocean City Elementary School students are pictured on the first day of the 2023-24 academic year.
Photo courtesy Worcester County Public Schools

By Tara Fischer, Staff Writer 

As the school system continues to struggle with math results, the Worcester County Board of Education heard a presentation on the complexities and rigors of instruction at their June 18 meeting.  

“There has been a lot of discussion around mathematics and the challenges with the math scores that have come out,” Chief Academic Officer Denise Shorts said. 

Worcester County Public Schools Coordinator of Mathematics Instruction Sarah Blackburn presented initiatives to the board of education that display the challenging and comprehensive nature of the curriculum. The demonstration included the example of fifth-grade math assessments, which incorporate modeling, critical thinking, and reasoning. 

“Frankly, I’m glad I’m not a fifth grader at times when it comes to … all the complexities that we ask of them,” Shorts said. 

Blackburn, who just finished her first year as the mathematics coordinator, notes that they ask students to “take things to the next level.” 

She said that to be considered college and career-ready, students must meet grade-level standards and showcase mastery in content, reasoning, and modeling. 

Demonstrating content skills requires students to solve the math outlined expected for their age. The children must also be able to reason or explain the ideas. For example, they may be given a diagram on tests and asked to articulate why it makes sense. 

Additionally, fifth graders must grasp the concept of modeling. To be considered proficient, students must be able to apply the problems to a real-world setting and communicate their thinking. 

A math assessment for this grade level is roughly 50% content questions, 25% reasoning, and 25% modeling. 

“We are not just asking students to do the math problem,” Blackburn said. “We are asking students to take things to the next level with application and explanation.” 

Math teachers in Worcester County are encouraged to facilitate “number talk.” At the beginning of every class, the instructor poses a problem, gives students time to think, shares their answers, and then talks to a partner. During this time, the educator notes the ways the children solved the equation. 

This activity is vital in teaching kids that there is always more than one way to solve a problem, allowing them to expand their mathematical and critical thinking skills. 

The process emphasizes the importance of mental math. The students are required to solve the problem, such as fraction multiplication, in their heads.

“…We ask students to multiply fractions with paper and pencil, but also ask them to do multiple math strategies,” Blackburn said. The modeling then comes into play. 

“Modeling starts with a problem and ends with students communicating their solution to the problem,” she continued. “A lot of what they are doing is applying that content. When these questions are posed on assessments or in-class practice, they are provided space to draw a diagram, make a table, or any other way they can communicate their thinking.” 

Students receive a checklist for assessing their math modeling to ensure they are on track. Teachers also provide feedback. 

The board of education approved the outlined math instruction. 

“It is a great joy to see that a child can sit down to a math problem and come up with a completely different way than the person sitting next to them, and it’s okay,” board member Elena McComas said. 

Chief Operating and Academic Officer Annette Wallace shared similar sentiments. 

“As a former math teacher, the two things that are most difficult for students are fractions and word problems,” she said. “I am most proud of our math program is that we are teaching mathematics in a way that makes sense … students from my generation … it was all memorization, and you were rewarded for how quickly you could get the job done. Unfortunately, that created over time learners who had very little understanding conceptually what a fraction stood for … It is wonderful to see our students grow.”

This year’s mathematics scores are expected to be available to teachers and school officials by August 15. 

Blackburn said standardized math assessments are graded by the state. The content-based half of the test is machine-scored, as it is primarily multiple-choice. Real people evaluate the longer problems. This takes more time, as every response is assessed by several educators across Maryland. 

This story appears in the July 4, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.