Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Helping Students Demonstrate Their Math Knowledge

WestEd, on behalf of Fenway High School, Massachusetts

Story posted June, 2008.  Results updated January 28, 2014.

Fenway's MCAS performance continued its uphill trend in 2013, with 95% of students scoring proficient or above on ELA, up from 91% in 2012.
In 2013, for math, 84% of students scored proficient or above, up from 82% in 2012.
The school had a 92% graduation rate in 2013, up from 83% in 2007.

Fenway High has a unique history.  It was founded in 1983 as a program for students in at-risk situations who were failing in the more traditional high schools.  Fenway became a pilot school in 1995 and is now open to all students, serving a diverse population that is 44% African-American, 36% Hispanic, and 15% Caucasian, with 46% receiving free or reduced lunch.

Fenway has an innovative approach to student learning, most notably in math, and has seen significant improvement in test scores over the past few years. Fenway's principal and math chair both agree that their continuous improvement in mathematics is supported by three key elements:

  • Developing students' deep understanding of math
  • Using formative assessments to gauge student performance
  • Providing resources that both enhance and support students' math knowledge

Developing students' deep understanding of math
Because the ability to demonstrate or explain math knowledge is at the core of Fenway's math program, opportunities to communicate math concepts are critical. While performance on quizzes and exams is vitally important, a student's ability to communicate mathe­matical understanding to others is considered equally important.

Starting when stu­dents first enter Fenway as freshmen, they have opportunities to present their math ideas to an audience. Throughout their careers at Fenway, students are required to present high-level math problems - from a math fair during freshman year to ex­hibitions held annually. Some of the opportunities to make math presentations are formal - in front of staff, parents, peers, and community members - but a ma­jority are informal and imbedded in everyday interactions and conversations.

Fenway3web.jpgStaff point to the skills that this process engenders - a culture of engaged learners who can articulate their beliefs and knowl­edge. In addition, each of these interactions - from discussions to presentations to group work - provide critical student information, which help teachers assess student understanding and performance.

Using formative assessments to gauge student performance
Fenway math staff rely on formative assessments to inform their teaching practice. As students are always discussing and communicating their understanding of math concepts, teachers use these conversations to gather continuous and timely information about students' comprehension, gauging where they may need assistance.

In addition to emphasizing presentation skills, teachers require students to keep portfolios of their math work. After each unit, every student must submit a portfolio, which is usually a collection of the student's best work and a two- to four-page write-up addressing specific competencies. Students are required to choose at least three competencies or skills to write about, using examples from their work to demonstrate understanding. A valuable authentic assessment, these portfolios are key to building on a student's knowledge of math.

Providing resources that both enhance and support students' math knowledge
Fenway's efforts to improve student learning depend on teachers not only assessing students but also using that information to target assistance for students who need it. Some of the support available to students includes after-school, one-on-one sessions with math staff as well as access to the school's Learning Center, which provides targeted support during the school day and is open to all students after school.  

In addition to remedial supports, Fenway offers resources to accelerate students' learning so they can excel in higher-level math classes. Fenway has a partnership with Emmanuel College, a liberal arts and sciences college, where students can take college-level math courses and earn college credit. On average, approximately one-third of Fenway's seniors have taken advantage of this opportunity to enroll in college-level math classes at Emmanuel. Access to this caliber of courses is of particular importance, especially for underserved students, given the relationship between taking rigorous math courses in high school and being successful later in college.

Fenway1web.jpgAs a result of this increased focus on math, Fenway has seen enormous gains. In 2004, only 35% of students scored in the top two levels on the MCAS, whereas in 2007, 70% did. In addition, 91% of Fenway's tenth graders passed the math portion of the state's exam, the Mas­sachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).


Fenway also has other signs of student success - attendance, promotion, graduation, and college placement rates suggest Fenway's approach is working well for students.  For example, in 2007, Fenway boosted an overall graduation rate of 83% and a higher graduation rate of 89% for both black and Hispanic students.


This story came to LFA's attention after being featured in "Rethinking High School: Supporting All Students to be College Ready in Math ," the fifth report in the series "Rethinking High School," published by WestEd with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


Story adapted from "Rethinking High School" with permission from WestEd  and the Gates Foundation 

For additional information, please contact:
Peggy Kemp
Head of School, Fenway High School

Further details about Fenway can be found at:
Fenway High School website

Boston Public School's Focus on the Children, "Fenway High School," December 2007