May 17, 2023

Urging PPS to Use West Windsor as Model for Math Program Reform

To the Editor:

Princeton residents may be surprised to hear that students in the Princeton Public Schools do not do particularly well on state math tests. While all schools took a hit from COVID, algebra scores in Princeton fell nearly twice as far as scores in New Jersey overall, and in 2022, PPS students floundered on the state exams for algebra and geometry. Despite its resources, Princeton barely beat the state average, and trailed far behind neighboring districts like West Windsor and Montgomery.

These lackluster results can be traced to the district’s incoherent middle school math curriculum. In recent years, administrators have adopted a haphazard approach to math placement, and in a well-intentioned but disastrous 2019 decision, the district combined all sixth graders into a single Accelerated Pre-algebra course. To make this feasible, critical content was removed, producing a wealth of unfortunate downstream consequences. For our middle school students in general, between 2019 and 2022, the proficiency rate plummeted from 72.6 percent to 52.3 percent for Algebra 1 and from 94 percent to 54 percent for Algebra 2. Students without outside tutoring have been hit especially hard: the percentage of economically disadvantaged students passing the Algebra 1 exam fell 41 percent between 2019 and 2022, down to a disastrous 10 percent proficiency rate.

The district is finally reckoning with the damage it has created. As it hires a new math supervisor and reviews the curriculum, it would do well to consider the rigorous and well-designed math program at West Windsor, a similar school district that far outperforms Princeton, with higher scores overall and smaller achievement gaps between demographic groups. In West Windsor in 2022, for example, despite COVID, nearly 57 percent of economically disadvantaged students taking the Algebra 1 test passed, as did nearly 84 percent of students at Thomas Grover Middle School.

One hallmark of successful math programs is that they use targeted direct instruction and focused practice, recognizing that different students learn at different paces and that all students learn the most when they are taught content that is neither over their heads nor so easy that they know it already. This approach, sometimes called “tracking,” has been disfavored in recent years in Princeton. Our low scores and widening achievement gaps should prompt the Board of Education to revisit this prejudice. Math presents a particular challenge for heterogeneous classrooms, and struggling students are most likely to get lost in the shuffle. Genuine equity means giving all students the careful placement, direct instruction, and support they need to learn the most that they can within the framework of a rigorous and coherent curriculum.

I urge the district to hire a math supervisor with a strong math background and a record of running a highly successful program, and to use West Windsor as a model for reform. I am concerned that district leaders are more focused on making excuses than on making improvements. They have suggested that Princeton could not possibly match our neighbors’ success because of our demographics. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Prospect Avenue