OVERLEA – Math teacher Nina Riggs stood before a class of 20 algebra students at Overlea High School this week in Baltimore County and went over the basics.
Armed with a graphing calculator and an overhead projector, she demonstrated how to input equations and solve for variable x. Then, Riggs reviewed the class’s answers and revealed an extra feature of the graphing calculator:
“Here’s a good way to tell if your kid has been working with the calculator or passing notes in class,” she said with a laugh as she showed them how to call up past work on the screen.
It is 7 p.m., long after the dismissal bell, and Riggs’ students are the parents of mostly eighth- and ninth-graders who will take the high school assessment in algebra I in May.
With this year’s crop of freshmen the first to face the high school assessments — which test proficiency in algebra I, biology, English and American government — as a graduation requirement, counties across Maryland are coming up with innovative ways to prepare students — and their parents — for the tests.
The Department of Professional Development and the PTA came up with the idea for the three-night refresher Algebra Awareness Sessions after hearing from parents nervous about helping their kids with a subject that makes them somewhat uncomfortable.
“There’s always this fear factor for algebra I,” said Patricia Baltzley, director of mathematics for Baltimore County Public Schools. “This was just a way to eliminate some of that fear and make it less intimidating.”
“Sometimes she does have questions and I don’t always know how to help her,” said Becky Klima, parent of an eighth-grader at Holabird Middle School. “Even just learning what some of the buttons meant (on the graphing calculator was helpful).”
“I just want to know as much as I can so she’ll know what to expect,” said Penny Brown, whose seventh-grade daughter is in pre-algebra at Perry Hall Middle School. “If she has a question, I’ll know the answer right away instead of her of having to wait until the next day.”
While these programs are not tracked at the state level, counties across Maryland are looking for ways to best prepare their students for the new graduation requirement, which sometime includes extra parental involvement, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for Maryland Public Schools.
“Each system is looking at this differently,” Reinhard said. “It’s a great idea that Baltimore County had . . . some counties are doing similar things. These are popping up.”
For example, in Howard County they are doing an “all-out push” to prepare students and parents, said Clarissa Evans, director of secondary curricular programs for Howard County Public Schools.
The county is holding community outreach presentations, and on Oct. 24, it will hold a parents’ night specifically for Korean-speaking families. Howard, like many counties, also will have online help, including sample tests.
“Kids just need help getting on track,” Evans explained, “to really understand what they’re doing, rather than just trying to hang on by the skin of their teeth.”
Prepping parents for a test their children will take demystifies what is going on in algebra classrooms. The new “philosophy” of algebra is to provide real-world examples and offer a variety of ways to find the answer — a far cry from the old “solve-for-x” method, Riggs said.
“If they don’t get the equation ‘x plus y equals z,’ but they solve it, they’re still going to get the credit,” said Riggs. “That’s why parents need to come back. They need to see all those different ways to solve the problem that they didn’t learn in school.
While parental awareness is important, said Reinhard, it’s what kids are learning in the classroom that will best prepare them.
That and a calm attitude.
“Students have a number of times to pass it,” Reinhard said. “It’s not this single test and if they don’t pass it they (can’t graduate).”
Riggs sticks to that advice in her classroom by teaching math, not the test.
“It’s a thread throughout,” she said. “It’s not like ‘This is on the test. This is on the test.’ It’s almost like, this is the way you should be teaching.”