Issaquah School District changes class requirements to recommendations

March 22, 2011

By Laura Geggel

In the past, high school students have needed to fulfill specific class requirements before taking higher-level courses.

Starting this fall, Issaquah School District administrators are changing those prerequisites to learning recommendations.

“We’re trying to increase access for students,” Executive Director of Secondary Education Patrick Murphy said. “We used to say, ‘You must have at least a B-minus to take this class.’ But what if I have a C-plus?”

Changing the prerequisites to learning recommendations has been a year and a half in the making. Throughout the year, Murphy meets with the principals from Issaquah, Liberty, Tiger Mountain Community and Skyline high schools. The group brainstorms ways it can increase access for students.

The access talks serve as an umbrella for several subjects, including how the district could increase student access to quality teachers, better activities and challenging courses.

This is not the first time the district has changed prerequisites to learning recommendations. Middle school students traditionally had to take a sixth-grade math placement test. If students performed poorly on the placement test, or if they missed the mark by a few points, they would be placed in the regular class.

The district changed that policy a few years ago, making the placement test more of a yardstick to show where they student stood academically. If students did not perform well on the test, but had good math results from the Stanford Achievement Test, standardized testing and math class, they could make a decision with their parents about whether they should be in the regular or the advanced math class.

Theoretically, every student could have registered for the advanced math class, but that did not happen.

“I was the principal (at Maywood Middle School) at the time when we did it, and I can tell you I was nervous,” Murphy said.

One year after the policy switch, both the regular and the advanced math class had almost exactly the same number of students as before the change. Communication was key, Murphy said.

“We said very clearly in our letter, ‘You need to live with that decision.’ This isn’t, ‘Hey, I want to try this out for awhile,’” Murphy said.

Communication between students and parents is also important. Both should make a decision about what is best for a student’s academic level, Murphy said.

After the middle school math change went well, the district made a similar policy change for ninth-grade math placement in the 2010-11 year.

Teachers and administrators across the district are waiting to see whether the high school policy change will benefit students.

“We’re kind of interested to see if the students are able to place themselves accurately,” Issaquah High School French teacher Martha Legier said. “We fully intend to communicate with our students as effectively and efficiently as possible so they can make the right choice.”

Tucker Russell, a sophomore at Skyline, was more on the fence.

“I think there is definitely a group of kids who are smart enough and would benefit from the classes, because they know they need to challenge themselves,” he said. “But there is also a group of kids who shouldn’t necessarily be making that decision, because it could be too much of a challenge and they need to take it down to the basics.”

The new learning recommendations do not change graduation requirements, Murphy said. Students will still need to take four credits of English and three credits of math, for example.

The ninth-grade physical science class is no longer required. Eighth-grade students can take a physical science challenge test online to see if they are prepared to enroll in biology.

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