Educators in the state's second-largest school district are trying to make learning math less stressful for middle-schoolers.
They are breaking away from a long-standing practice of rote memorization of formulas and algebraic equations by using play, videos and games to ensure students have a better grasp of mathematical concepts.
Experts say mastering algebra in middle school is a key predictor of future college and career success.
Only about one in four students -- 28.4 percent -- has passed algebra by the end of eighth grade, according to the 2015 Illinois School Report Card data.
In Elgin Area School District U-46, 33.5 percent of students passed eighth-grade algebra last year.
To improve performance, U-46 is implementing a more rigorous math curriculum this year in its eight middle schools and switching to a standards-based learning and assessment model. These standards establish what a student must know and be able to demonstrate to show proficiency in a course's content. Teachers assess students' progress on a scale from 0 to 4, with 4 indicating "mastery" of the subject matter -- meaning students have learned the required key concepts and skills in that course.
The new Eureka math curriculum being rolled out in seventh grade this year, and eighth grade next year, emphasizes conceptual understanding through different techniques, such as using card games and play.
Katrina Hoekstra, an eighth-grade math teacher at Kenyon Woods Middle School in South Elgin, puts her students through timed mental math "sprints," shouting out questions with students shouting back answers. Students do this exercise multiple times, and each time the focus is on how much they have improved in their conceptual understanding and fluency. The goal is building mental agility.
"It's about being fast and accurate," Hoekstra said. "There was a lot more rote practice and drills before. Now, it's more conceptual-based (word) problems. There's a purpose to the math. We try to celebrate who improves."
Instead of giving students a page full of problems to solve, teachers give them contextual situations to better understand the numbers and their applications.
A sample question might look like this: "A 250-gigabyte hard drive has a total of 250,000,000,000 bytes of available storage space. A 3.5-inch, double-sided floppy disk widely used in the 1980s could hold about 8 x 10⁵ bytes. How many double-sided floppy disks would it take to fill the 250-gigabyte hard drive?"
While right answers still are preferred, teachers want students to be able to detail the process of how they arrive at their conclusions.
"(It) is still the same math. We are just going to be asking the students to do more explaining and reasoning," said Amy Ingente, K-12 math coordinator for U-46. "They use lots of hands-on manipulatives, place value charts, a variety of and more pictorial models."
Megan Cammack, a seventh-grade teacher at Kenyon Woods, uses a flip classroom method with students watching YouTube videos of her lessons beforehand and then explaining what they learned in class, which has improved comprehension and retention, she said.
All district seventh-grade teachers underwent training over the summer on the new Eureka math curriculum, which a few teachers tried out last year. Teachers also have been sharing with students and parents examples of what proficiency on the standards looks like and how they will be evaluated.
Students will have to explain, write, identify, compare and contrast to demonstrate their depth of knowledge.
"We are going to be focusing on the specific skills you need to be able to reach a level of proficiency with (the content)," said Suzanne Johnson, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. "Nationally, algebra seems to be a gate-keeping class for a lot of students. It's not just about getting a certain percentage (on tests). It really is about proficiency and mastery of those skills. When students do college placement assessments, those algebra skills continue to come up again and are essential skills for them moving forward."