Some teachers and administrators say the problem is that
middle-school kids are accelerating too quickly through high-level math classes. Others point to what they say is a flawed admissions process at the highly selective public school that serves a broad swath of Northern Virginia.
“We don’t know if this one year is an anomaly or if it’s an actual trend,” Evan Glazer, principal of the acclaimed school known as TJ, said Wednesday. “There are so many different possible root causes that we don’t have sufficient data at this point, in my opinion, to draw conclusions about where the problem may lie.”
The issue became public after seven TJ Algebra II teachers sent a letter dated April 16 to the School Board detailing their concerns. The letter, first reported May 17 by the Washington Examiner, said that too many students arrived at the school last fall ill equipped for its extraordinary academic demands.
Most of TJ’s approximately 480 freshmen take Algebra II, and every one of them passed the state end-of-course test this spring, according to school system officials. About 90 percent earned an advanced score.
But TJ’s famously fast-paced and intensive courses go far beyond the state-mandated curriculum. School policy says that students who fall below a B average, or 3.0, are in jeopardy of being returned to their neighborhood schools.
The watch-list spike caused officials to take a closer look at student performance. They identified an additional 15 percent of the Class of 2015 whose math and science grades indicated that while they were not yet in serious academic trouble, they were on the edge of it.
Both groups of students — 30 percent of freshmen — are getting extra support, Glazer said. The support varies, depending on need. Measures include study sessions with upperclassmen and small-group tutoring with teachers.
Why are students having trouble keeping up? In recent days, Fairfax has swirled with hypotheses.
Some have pointed out that more middle school students are racing through high school-level math courses, perhaps leaving them with gaps in basic skills.
At TJ, the proportion of freshmen taking Algebra II or a higher level of math — courses traditionally taken by juniors or advanced sophomores — jumped from about 65 percent five years ago to roughly 90 percent this year, Glazer said.
“Students, not just at TJ but all over the region, are accelerating in math at a very rapid rate,” said Glazer. “We’re starting to question, maybe we’ve accelerated too fast.”
The acceleration among TJ students mirrors a regional trend. A generation ago, most students were expected to take Algebra I in ninth grade. Now, many school systems aim for students to complete that course by eighth grade. More than two-thirds of Fairfax kids meet that goal.