A planned change to the 2014-15 class schedule at Aspen High School has revealed a rift in the local academic community about the way standardized testing influences the school curriculum.

Following an October directive from Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy, the high school plans to boost the amount and frequency of math instruction next year. With a finite amount of instructional time each day, this means that math will eat into time currently spent on other activities.

As the idea has sunk in and administrators have sought feedback from teachers, parents and students, a divide has emerged between those who support the math-oriented change and those who fear other elements of the AHS curriculum will suffer. Overlaying this debate is the creeping erosion of teachers’ control over the classroom as more and more time is allocated to preparing students for standardized tests.

There are mixed feelings about Maloy’s directive, but it is not up for debate. Students will have math class five days a week and 50 to 60 minutes per day next year — the only question is where and how to find and structure that time.

“If we’re intentional about what we’re teaching, and the whole community agrees on it, then there’s power in that,” said Jamie Hozack, chair of the AHS math department. “I don’t think that’s necessarily our situation.”

Maloy issued the directive because AHS students, though they outperform their peers around the state in math, are falling behind other “match schools,” meaning academically rigorous and demographically similar high schools, including Denver’s Cherry Creek, Steamboat Springs and others.

“We’ve attacked this over the years,” he explained, “and what we’ve seen is that, as our kids move through the system, their math scores trend down. They’re performing higher at an earlier age, and the scores tend to plummet by the time they get into high school. It’s reminiscent of math across the country.”

This downward trend, school administrators say, may be acceptable in other cities and states, but not in Aspen.

The rationale

For context, it’s important to know that Aspen High is recognized widely as one of Colorado’s finest public high schools. The school was one of only 16 across the state to be “accredited with distinction” by the Colorado Department of Education in 2013. In 2012, U.S. News and World Report rated Aspen High the state’s best high school, and No. 59 in the entire nation. This accolade was based in part on students’ exemplary scores on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program test, which measures all Colorado public school students’ skills in several core disciplines.

In keeping with this track record, the Aspen Board of Education and the district administration say it’s not sufficient to outperform other Colorado students. They’re trying to ensure Aspen students can compete nationally and globally.

“Some might say that I am only concerned about test scores,” Maloy wrote in a December letter to the school community. “I would say that … this is more about preparing our students for their futures.”

Transitional Colorado Assessment Program test scores are ranked in four categories: Advanced, proficient, partially proficient and unsatisfactory.

In 2012-13, 58 percent of Aspen ninth-graders scored proficient or advanced on their math tests.

Among 10th-graders, 62 percent achieved those marks.

In the same year, ninth-graders from Cherry Creek High School scored 71 percent proficient or advanced, and 10th-graders from the same school scored 62 percent proficient or above.

Aspen’s results are well above the 2012-13 statewide averages of 39 percent for 9th graders and 34 percent for 10th, but, as Maloy said, they still fall short of the results posted by Aspen elementary and middle school students.

Between 67 and 88 percent of Aspen students in grades 3 through 8 ranked proficient or above on their 2012-13 Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests.

Maloy chose to boost math minutes and frequency because research shows better math results for students who experience math every day. Furthermore, he said, Aspen’s so-called match schools offer more math time than Aspen does: an average of 542 minutes every two weeks versus 450 in Aspen.

The Aspen Board of Education doesn’t plan to act formally on the schedule change, which is seen as an administrative, operational issue, but Board President Sheila Wills said the “results-driven” board has prioritized literacy and numeracy.

“For me it’s clear-cut,” Wills said. “Literacy we do very well. Numeracy we need a little work on.”

The feedback

AHS Principal Kimberly Martin has been charged with figuring out how to boost math minutes and frequency without damaging the rest of school’s diverse curriculum. Martin has consulted with focus groups of parents, teachers, students and other stakeholders, and now two to three weeks past her target completion date, she hasn’t determined the solution.

“I recognize the importance of having a well-rounded curriculum, and I think parents in this community demand it — world languages, performing arts, ex-ed,” she said, using the short hand for experiential education. “We are providing a lot of really dynamic programming here. I just don’t know how much capacity this institution can continue to grow.”

Some parents have suggested that the school hire a scheduling consultant, Martin said, and others doubt the proposed change will do the trick, but “for the most part, parents were supportive.”

Teachers have had several months to consider the change, and there’s broad consensus about scheduling solutions, but many teachers still question the reasoning behind the directive. Math results have improved in recent years, teachers said, and devoting more time to math could undermine the school’s “whole child” educational approach. Even Hozack, a math teacher himself, is concerned.

“It’s not intelligent thinking to consider one part without looking at the whole,” Hozack said. “It would be a shame, especially in this community, to detract from things like fine arts or industrial arts.”

Some students share the same general fear. They understand the importance of math, but worry about other educational priorities.

“I think our scores could go down in other subjects,” said Jessica Tyler, editor of The Skier Scribbler, the schools newspaper. “I’d say the negatives outweigh the positives.”

Further complicating the picture is Martin’s preliminary estimate of two new teachers needed to provide the additional math time. The cost of those people, salaries, benefits and so forth, would be roughly $200,000. And it’s unknown at this point where that money would come from.

“In the absence of information, there’s fear,” Hozack said. “I don’t think I can talk intelligently about what the results of this are going to be.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of local education. The Times published this story on Monday, March 10, 2014.