ATLANTIC CITY — Fifth-grader Drashti Lapsiwala, 10, was on her game, making more than half of her free throws in the New York Avenue School gym.
Azim Coley, 10, sat on the floor, tallying her results and keeping track of how many throws she had left in order to complete 12.
“How do we count by fives?” math coach William Heckman asked, reminding students they can put a slash through their four vertical lines to make a group of five.
Upstairs in a classroom, teacher Jerome Taylor’s seventh-graders had already completed their free throws and were tallying what percentage of throws each student had made, how the girls compared to the boys, and how class fared as a whole.
“I calculated it in fractions, then with a decimal point,” seventh-grader Ayannah Barnes explained.
Fractions and percentages are weak areas among students, math supervisor Ray Allen said. The basketball project is an effort to help students better understand them by applying them to a real-life exercise rather than abstract problems in a book.
Students are not the only ones using real-life data. The Atlantic City School District has been collecting and analyzing its own data since 2005 to try to improve student performance.
“We identify where students are weak and target those areas,” Allen said. “We are tracking both what the teachers teach and what the students learn.”
Students’ passing rates on the state math tests have risen steadily in every grade and now are within striking distance of the state average. Some schools are beating the state average.
“The results are spiraling upward because students now remember what they did the year before,” said John Quinn, a Richard Stockton College education professor who is working with the district.
On Wednesday, Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, stopped by to visit some classes. The NCTM is holding a regional conference in Atlantic City, and Shaughnessy wanted to see the local program.
“The fact that the students gathered their own data makes it more meaningful,” he said. “It’s much different than just taking some numbers and putting them up on the board.”
Shaughnessy said a huge issue in math today is developing “number sense” in students — getting them to really understand how they are used in real-life situations, such as calculating a percentage.
“Statistics today really (are) more important to most students than calculus,” he said. “We want students to be able to communicate, explain and defend how they use numbers.”
Atlantic City has math coaches who work with teachers and students to target areas where they are struggling. Coach Christine Wickward said the coaches meet often and can more easily identify districtwide issues or work with individual teachers.
“The job of the coach is to look for trouble,” Allen said. “The sooner we can find the weaknesses, the faster we can make improvement.”
At the Sovereign Avenue School, Allen and the math coaches used a program called 2Know to track how well students understood percentage problems. Students received handheld calculators linked to the program and as they answered three different types of questions, the staff could see how many students got the right answer and where they were confused.
“Sometimes they can do the math on worksheets, but when you mix it up in applications, they can’t do it,” Allen said. “They have to learn how to apply the theory (and) make those connections.”
Deborah Ives, past president of the Association of Math Teachers of New Jersey, said it’s fine to ask students to memorize times tables or formulas, but the purpose is to apply those skills to solving problems. She was thrilled when Taylor’s students at New York Avenue School said how much more they enjoyed the “basketball math” than traditional book math.
“It seems easier because we are doing something real,” said Azahnah Hill, 12.
About 3,000 math teachers are expected to attend the NCTM conference today and Friday at the Atlantic City Convention Center, where they will attend workshops on the new national core standards and learn strategies for teaching. But they might not spend a lot of time in the casinos.
“We’re not big gamblers,” Shaughnessy said. “We understand the odds.”
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