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School defies math odds

Dixon students ace tests despite demographic stats

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26 2007 12:00 a.m. MST

PROVO — Just a day before Christmas break, students in Kalene Darling's eighth-grade geometry class at Dixon Middle School were diligently working.
Absent was any bouncing-off-the-walls energy students typically exhibit before a 14-day midyear break. None of Darling's students were rough-housing or shouting — they were correcting mistakes made on their last test while carols played in the background.
"Usually when I mess up it's because I don't get the problem at all, or I make a stupid mistake, like if the problem had two answers but I only had one answer," student Kelsey Cox said.
Since 2004, eighth-grade geometry students at Dixon Middle School in downtown Provo have scored at least 24 points above the state average on Utah's Criterion Referenced Tests, the standardized tests administered each year to determine whether public school students are mastering the core curriculum.
State education officials release CRT results to the public as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
"I think it's interesting because often we're compared to Centennial across town," Dixon principal Rosanna Ungerman said.
In eighth-grade geometry, Dixon students averaged 16 points higher than students at their sister school to the east, Centennial Middle.
The math scores could be considered impressive, considering about 55 percent of Dixon students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Statistically speaking, students from poor or low-income families tend to score lower on standardized tests.
In addition, about 25 percent of the Dixon's 840 students are ethnic minorities. Some were born outside the United States.
An eighth-grader in geometry is no ordinary student, regardless of the school, because taking the class requires whizzing through pre-algebra and Algebra I in sixth and seventh grades.
Only about 75 eighth-graders take geometry each year at Dixon. Teachers described them as bright and self-motivated. Most of the students said they love math and say they have about 30 minutes of math homework each night.
At Dixon, teachers said the high test scores can be attributed to activities such as requiring students to take lecture notes during math classes and grading them on those notes. Instead of end-of-chapter tests, teachers give students "review tests" covering concepts spanning the entire year.
Each teacher has her own tried-and-proven techniques. Darling requires students to resubmit incorrect test problems. She believes it helps students learn to solve problems correctly before moving on to new concepts.
Sherri Pack refuses to allow her students to "skip" steps in algebraic problems. She also requires students to identify each step by proper name, such as the "subtraction property of equality" or the "identity property of addition." It'll help them as the math gets harder, she says.
"Math is communication," she said. "A lot of people know the answer (before properly finishing a problem). I make them tell why."
Math classes are rotated among teachers each year: This year's geometry teacher could be teaching algebra next year.
That means the math teachers must be solid in algebra and geometry.
The math teachers must constantly work with each other, poring over the state curriculum, figuring out where in textbooks students will learn the concepts, and improvising when necessary.
During professional development days, the teachers compare tests to learn "if your class did a lot better on that question, how did you teach that," Darling said.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com

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