CARY, N.C. (WNCN) — For some parents in Wake County, the numbers still
don’t add up.

County education leaders continue to stand behind a mathematics curriculum that has drawn criticism from a group of parents.

A dramatically lower percentage of high school students in the county passed the state’s Math 1 exam at the end of the 2018-19 academic year.

While the school district believes changes to the test itself and the way the state records those results are factors in the drop, some parents believe the Mathematics Vision Project program also may be at least partly to blame.

“Everything I see points to, something’s wrong,” said Blain Dillard, the parent of a high school student in Cary who is leading the fight against MVP Math.

In an MVP classroom, instead of a teacher lecturing from the blackboard, the students work through problems in groups while the teachers supplement and facilitate those discussions. Some parents argue that model is not working for many teachers and students in the county.

Barbara Kuehl, an author and consultant for MVP, says the project materials have “received top marks in unbiased curriculum reviews” and pointed to another consultant’s recent review of the program in Wake County, saying it “affirmed that MVP Math represents best practices in its approach to math.”

A June 2019 curriculum review committee report produced by the school district shows it has spent more than $1.2 million on MVP. Wake County stands behind the system introduced for the 2017-18 academic year to standardize the curriculum across the county.

That decision has come with some criticism. Dillard was sued by MVP last summer for libel and slander after he criticized the company’s curriculum. He countersued MVP in response to its lawsuit against him, arguing that the suit was intended to censor, intimidate and silence him. Both sides dropped their suits in October. He still faces $10,000 in legal bills, and a fellow parent recently started a GoFundMe to help pay them.

Brad McMillen, the county superintendent for data, research and accountability, says it ideally takes 3-5 years to gather enough data for a more thorough evaluation. Students who passed MVP Math 1 as freshmen two years ago should be juniors in Math 3 this year.

The county points to results from that first year as evidence of modest improvement.

Its numbers show an increase of 1.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 in the number of high school students who scored at level 3, 4 or 5 – or, what is termed grade-level proficient (GLP) – in the end-of-year Math 1 exam, and an increase of 1.9 percent in those scoring at level 4 or 5 – also labeled as college-and-career-ready (CCR) scoring.

But according to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, those percentages in Wake County dropped markedly in Year 2 of MVP. The GLP figure showed a decrease of 7.4 percent while the CCR number declined 19.4 percent. That reflects a drop from 42 percent to 34.6 percent among students in GLP and a decline from 28.3 percent to 8.9 percent in the CCR figure.

McMillen said one of the reasons for the declines is because the state made its Math 1 test more difficult, aligning it to the state’s standards and making it tougher to compare those results to those from previous years.

The message from the state, McMillen said, was effectively to “hit the reset button and start over.”

The state also made changes to the way it records scores across grade levels, a process known as “banking.” Math 1 can be taken by students ranging from grades 6-12. Under the former way of banking, the score for a hypothetical eighth-grade student taking the Math 1 exam in 2017 would be tabulated and reported along with that student’s Grade 8 Math test score. Now, those scores would count as a substitute for a middle school’s eighth-grade score, complicating the ability to compare scores across time. 

These changes help explain why most school districts showed a decline in their state-reported Math 1 results between 2018 and ’19.

During that span, the statewide high school grade-level proficiency percentages dropped from 57 percent to 41 percent. In Durham County, they dropped from 42.8 percent to 30.9 percent. They fell from 60.2 percent to 42.2 percent in Charlotte-Mecklenberg County. And in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, which has used the MVP Math system since 2014, the percentages dipped from 79.2 percent to 61.7 percent.

Some changes are coming to the MVP program after a consulting group hired by the school system to evaluate the system offered its recommendations last month. Among them: Using successful MVP teachers through the county as coaches, providing more training for teachers and adding resources to make the curriculum more accessible.