Q: Our fifth-grade son loves reading and science and does well in them, but he has always had trouble in math. His teacher says he's "working below capacity." The trouble is, she really can't describe what "below capacity" means. Does that mean he's below grade level?
A: You say he's always had trouble with math, so it could mean that he's working below fifth-grade level and has been promoted from grade to grade without fully mastering math content each year. Or it could mean that he knows the material but doesn't love the subject and simply doesn't apply himself.
Whatever the reason, you're right to be concerned, says San Jose, California, fifth-grade teacher Bill Laraway.
"When students do well in most subjects but lag in one, parents and teachers sometimes assume that they'll just catch up," he says. "But math is one of those subjects requiring a strong early foundation. Students must master one set of skills before moving to another. Your son will need to up his math game to be successful in middle school math and science."
Schedule another conference with his teacher, suggests Laraway.
"Ask her to pinpoint areas where his skills and understanding are weak," he says. "Create a plan to help him quickly come up to speed. This could mean working with a resource teacher who suggests practice activities that you monitor. You could also consider a tutor. If he truly lacks skill mastery, you have to help him catch up."
If he knows the material and just doesn't apply himself, "show him that math can be useful in his day-to-day life, that he can have fun with it and it can be a lifelong tool to make life easier," says Laraway.
Find fun math-related games and puzzles to challenge him.
"Since he loves science," Laraway says, "show him how key math is in higher-level science. There are no successful scientists who fail at math."
Many parents want tangible ways to understand if their child is on track in school, says Bill Jackson, president and founder of GreatSchools.org, an organization that supports parental engagement in their children's education.
"Report cards don't tell the whole story," he says. "With the new state learning standards, parents are demanding easy ways to know if a child is working on grade level."
To demonstrate what skill proficiency looks like, GreatSchools created a series of short Milestone Videos to help parents assess their child's progress in reading, writing and math in grades kindergarten through five. Click on the fifth-grade math milestones, for example, and you'll see a teacher guiding a student through key skills such as adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators and estimating answers to word problems.
The videos in English and Spanish highlight three to five key elements of the standards in each subject. Before meeting with your son's teacher, go through the fifth-grade math videos to learn what "on grade level" means in math, says Jackson.
"Does the son appear to understand the concepts?" he asks. "If not, try the fourth-grade math videos, and so on. You'll get a sense of what he may still need to learn."
To access the Milestone Videos, go to greatschools.org/milestones or check out the YouTube channel: youtube.com/greatschools.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)