The orange circle on the right looks bigger, but in fact both are the same size. The deception is based on the additional sensory input.

Similarly, the prerequisites for taking algebra are often considered to be basic skills. This is largely an illusion. I routinely encounter students who are referred to me for help as they have been caught in an infinite loop of working on basic math such as number operations (adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division) before moving on to algebra, with limited progress. I am not suggesting basic math skills are not important but am focused on the context of prerequisites needed to engage algebra. Many of the students I have helped who were in this situation. We worked to quickly move them into algebra where they were successful.

One student worked on half a year of 4th grade math during her 7th grade year. During the spring of that 7th grade year and the subsequent summer, I worked with her on algebraic thinking and algebra topics. She successfully completed algebra 1 during her 8th grade year.

The Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) for Math maps out the prerequisites as seen in the CCSS math domains (below). Throughout elementary school, Operations and Algebraic Thinking topics are covered. The Algebraic Thinking standards establish for the students a foundation for algebra taught in middle and high school. A focus of algebra is to model or represent patterns or relationships in real life situations using equations, tables, and graphs. These include quantities modeled by variables.

Below is a break down of this foundation in elementary school. If you are supporting a student in middle or high school who is taking algebra and has major gaps in his or her math education, look to these standards for the essential prerequisite skills.

First Grade: represent situations in word problems by adding or subtracting, and introduce equations (and equal sign).

Second Grade: Represent, solve word problems, introduce multiplication as groups of objects.

Third Grade: represent, solve word problems, explain patterns

Fourth Grade: Solve word problems, generate and analyze patterns

Fifth Grade: Write expressions (equations are 2 expressions with an = in between), analyze patterns and relationships

Critical dominoes in math education start falling in 6th and 7th grade with the last ones falling in college. If you have a student who struggles with math and is entering or returning to middle school, now is the time to intervene to avoid more serious issues related to math education in the future. If your student is not going to college or is not accessing the general curriculum, I suggest you read this.)

Below is a chart showing the different categories of Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) math (called domains) at different grade levels. For the majority of students who will attend college, the traditional algebra based sequence (algebra 1, algebra 2, and maybe pre-calculus, calculus) is the path of math courses to be taken. Given this, for students who struggle in math but have a post-secondary education as a goal, the domains I emphasize in middle school are Expressions and Equations, Ratios and Proportional Relationships, and Functions. For high school, I emphasize Algebra and Functions.

Looking at the overviews for CCSS math standards (below) you can see the dominoes line up.

In 6th grade, Ratios and Proportions are an entry point for Functions in 8th grade which leads to Functions in high school.

In 6th grade, Expressions and Equations are the entry point for Expressions and Equations in 7th and 8th grade, which lead to Algebra in high school.

If your student is struggling with the middle school topics I cited and the gaps are not filled, the struggle will be carried with them into high school and into college.

I recommend the following:

Focus IEP math objectives on the priority units of the math curriculum, as cited above.

Ask for examples of mastery for the objectives to help you evaluate progress and mastery. Have this in place from day 1.

Most testing for IEPs involves standardized testing. As I wrote in a previous post, this is important testing but is not sufficient. A major focus of special education is to make the general education accessible as possible. Hence, curriculum based testing is an important complement to the standardized based testing. For example, the KeyMath3 assessment will speak to problem solving or geometry but those are broad categories. If I am working with a 3rd or 4th grade student, I would be interested in the student’s level of mastery in computing the perimeter of a rectangle.

Also, math is very different than reading because math has a variety of categories of math, aka domains. A student testing at a 4th grade level in math does not reveal much information, as I explain in this previous post.

When I conduct evaluations or assessments, I go to the Common Core Standards and assess each with curriculum based problems, see below. The photo shows my planning document and then I transfer the problems to a student handout for the student to complete.

A common scenario involves a school official reporting out the grade level in math for a student. For example, a 7th grade student I was helping had tested at a 4th grade level. As a result, the student spent much of her 7th grade year working on 4th grade math.

There are a couple problems in establishing a grade level in math. First, unlike reading, math is not nearly as linear. The image below shows a breakdown of the Common Core of State Standards math categories, called domains. In a video, I use this graphic to unpack why it is more challenging to determine a single level of ability for math. In short, the reason is the student could be doing well in some categories and doing poorly in others. Second, the testing used to establish ability level can be problematic for the student. For example, the student may not have the stamina or attention span to endure a longer assessment.

If you are presented with a single grade level as an indicator of math ability, I recommend that you ask for a breakdown by category and how your student will be provided differentiation to address gaps. This is more appropriate than plowing through all of the math at a lower grade level.

Fractions is one of the most challenging math topics. Many high school and college students struggle to some degree with fractions. The Common Core of State Standards (CCSS), despite all the criticism, includes components to address the conceptual understanding of fractions. Below is a photo showing a 4th grade Common Core standard regarding fractions along with an objective for a class lesson I taught at an elementary school in my district. I subsequently presented on this at the national CEC conference in 2014. Notice the bold font at the bottom, ¨justify…using a visual fraction model.¨ The photo above shows an example of a model I used in class.

The photo below shows a handout I used in the lesson. The first activity involved having students create a Lego representation of given fractions. These would eventually lead to the photo at the top with students comparing fractions using Legos. The students were to create the Lego model, draw a picture version of the model then show my co-teacher or I so we could sign off to indicate the student had created the Lego model.

The Lego model is the concrete representation in CRA. In this lesson I subsequently had students use fractions trips (on a handout) and then number lines – see photos below.

SBAC and PARC problems used to test CCSS are challenging and often draw upon context unfamiliar to students. This means students must navigate the content, problem solving and deciphering context. Below is an SBAC problem dealing with photo albums…PHOTO ALBUMS. Do kids today understand this? In the subsequent pictures you will see the work of one of my students on handouts I created that develop an understanding of the SBAC problem – note the “x-2” at the end. The idea is to shape their ability to do such problems.