mind the gap

Algebra pass rates fall amid Common Core shift, leaving at-risk students furthest behind

Pass rates fell sharply last school year as the state switched to a more challenging algebra exam that students will now need to pass to graduate high school, according to data released Thursday by the State Education Department.

Sixty-three percent of all test-takers passed the Common Core-aligned Algebra I Regents examination last school year, compared to 72 percent who passed an easier exam that students took the previous year, according to the data. The drops are even steeper for black and Hispanic students, as well as high-need students.

The slide was worse in New York City. In 2014, 65 percent of students passed the Integrated Algebra exam, but just 52 percent passed Common Core Algebra I in 2015.

For the first time last year, ninth graders could not take the less rigorous exam, known as Integrated Algebra. The exam, aligned to 2005 math standards, is being phased out as the state transitions to the more demanding Common Core learning standards.

Data provided by the city education department shows Regents pass rates are down on Common Core-aligned math exams and up in other subjects.
Regents pass rates are down on math exams, but up in other subjects. (Source: NYC DOE)

“Reality is setting in,” said Kim Nauer, an education researcher at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

State education officials had sought to ensure pass rates did not significantly change during the transition to the new algebra test, but the latest data offers the clearest sign yet that the department missed the mark. The disparity is even wider for students already at risk of falling behind, a miscalculation that could have major implications for thousands of high school students in the coming years.

At Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, where many students are recent immigrants with limited English skills, pass rates fell from 63 percent on the old exam to 14 percent on the new version. Peter Lamphere, an algebra teacher at the school, said he feared that his students’ path to graduation has gotten much harder.

“It’s terrifying,” he said.

David Rubel, an education consultant who has been outspoken in his concerns about how the state is rolling out the new test, said the new data raises additional questions about future implementation plans.

“Clearly they were not successful and I think this calls for a major reconsideration of the transition,” Rubel said.

State education department spokesman Tom Dunn did not explain why the change was greater than in past years. In a statement, he said that pass rates “tend to fluctuate for numerous reasons related to population changes and shifts in instruction.”

New York has pushed aggressively to align its state tests and graduation requirements to the new standards, which emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A national movement toward more rigorous standards has followed a recognition that too many students are graduating high school without the skills needed for college.

But the pace of implementation in elementary and middle school grades has demoralized many teachers who say the switch to harder standards happened too quickly and without adequate training or corresponding curriculum. Parents have also complained that schools are becoming too focused on preparing students for the new tests.

John Ewing, president of Math For America, said it was not surprising that students struggled to meet the new math standards. Students need to be exposed early to Common Core-aligned instruction, he said, not halfway through their education.

“This is improv,” Ewing said of the rollout. “Most of the kids taking these tests right now have seen just a tiny fraction of what is supposed to be in the Common Core.”

The switch to a new exam proved most troublesome for black and Latino students, whose pass rates dropped by more than 20 points, as well as at-risk students. Pass rates dropped from 56 percent to 28 percent for English language learners, from 43 percent to 26 percent for students with disabilities, and from 64 percent to 48 percent for poor students.

One risk is that thousands more students get caught up in what teachers call the “algebra whirlpool,” a phenomenon in which students retake the exam multiple times and are unable to proceed to more advanced math courses.

“Teachers have to figure out a way to get these kids to pass,” said Nauer, the education researcher who has written about the issue. “It’s not great for kids. They’re just sort of stuck.”

The new exams feature fewer multiple choice questions and more extended-response questions, which reflect the emphasis on reading skills that flows through all grades and subjects of the Common Core. They also feature new material, such as quadratic equations, that had previously been on the state’s Algebra II Regents exams.

Wary of more pushback, state education officials planned to give high schools extra time to switch to the new tests. Students were allowed to take both the old and new algebra exams two years ago and keep whichever score was higher. The same flexibility was provided last year for the Geometry and English Regents exams.

But with the stakes higher this year, questions about the new exams were raised almost immediately after they were administered in June — the first time freshmen took them without having the option of using scores from the easier exam. Rubel raised the possibility that large numbers of students could be more at risk of failing the new exam than previously anticipated, writing that the department had used a flawed scoring methodology.

Thursday’s data release includes the pass rates of 13 Regents exams that students took in the last school year, including three that are aligned to the Common Core. In addition to algebra, students are also now required to take new Common Core English and Geometry Regents exams, although they do not yet have to pass them to graduate.

New Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has said she is reviewing the state’s current high school graduation requirements. Last month, she announced that she was convening a workgroup to study the algebra exam pass rate standards.

“We expressed concern surrounding the algebra exam, and are encouraged that the state formed a committee that New York City is participating in,” city spokeswoman Devora Kaye said.

Most educators agree that the algebra tests are harder, but some said the shift is better in the long term.

Eric Scholtz, a math teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future, said that the tests were closely aligned to what’s in the standards, but said he’s still “getting used to how they are interpreting the standards.”

“The worst I can say is that it’s a little wordier than I expected,” Scholtz said, “But we’re definitely headed in a right direction.”

Correction: An earlier version misstated the difference in pass rate percentages for New York City between 2014 and 2015. 

rules and regs

State shortens length of ‘gag order’ on teachers discussing Regents questions online

PHOTO: G. Tatter

After pushback from teachers, the State Education Department has changed a new provision that temporarily prohibits teachers from discussing Regents exam questions online.

The original rule stated that teachers could not use email or a listserv to discuss test questions or other specific content with other teachers until a week after the exam period ended on June 23. As Chalkbeat reported Tuesday, teachers objected, arguing that they sometimes needed to discuss questions in order to properly grade the tests or to challenge questions that seems unfair.

Under the change, tests taken between June 13 and June 16 can be discussed online beginning June 23. And for those taken between June 19 and June 22, teachers can discuss content online beginning June 27.

According to education department officials, the provision was intended to ensure that testing material did not spread online before all students had completed their exams, particularly among schools that serve students with special needs, who qualify for multiple-day testing.

“We believe that nearly all students who are testing with this accommodation will have completed their exams by these dates,” Steven Katz, director of the Office of State Assessment, wrote in a memo to school principals and leaders.

Still, longtime physics teacher Gene Gordon and former president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State noted that, to some extent, the damage was done since the amendment to the rule came out only after many teachers had already graded their exams.

“It did not have any real effect,” Gordon said.

The New York State United Teachers — which criticized the new provision on Tuesday as a “gag order” and called for its repeal — called the amendment a “clear victory” for educators. Still, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn told Chalkbeat, “it clearly will be more helpful in the future than this year.”

Testing Testing

Calculator mix-up could force some students to retake ISTEP, and Pearson is partially to blame

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

ISTEP scores for thousands of students across the state will be thrown out this year, including at two Indianapolis private schools, according to state officials.

The mishap can be traced back to calculators. Students at 20 schools used calculators on a section of the 2017 ISTEP math test when they shouldn’t have — in at least one district because of incorrect instructions from Pearson, the company that administers the tests in Indiana.

It’s a small glitch compared to the massive testing issues Indiana experienced with its previous testing company, CTB McGraw Hill. But years of problems have put teachers, students and parents on high alert for even minor hiccups. In 2013, for example, about 78,000 students had their computers malfunction during testing. Pearson began administering ISTEP in 2016.

The calculator mix-up involving Pearson happened in Rochester Community Schools, located about two hours north of Indianapolis. About 700 students in three schools received the incorrect instructions.

Molly Deuberry, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said that Rochester is the only district known to have received the incorrect instructions, but the state is also investigating calculator-related problems at 19 other schools.

According to federal rules, students who use calculators on non-calculator test sections must have their scores labeled as “undetermined.” Current sophomores will need to retake the test, since passing the 10th-grade exam is a graduation requirement in Indiana. Students will have multiple opportunities to do so, including during the summer, state officials said.

It’s not clear how the invalidated scores will affect those schools’ A-F letter grades. It is up to the Indiana State Board of Education to handle A-F grade appeals, which districts can request once grades are released.

“The Department and State Board will collaborate to ensure that the State Board receives sufficient detail about this incident when reviewing the appeals,” the education department said in an email.

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said in an email that they would work with the education department to follow up on the calculator issues and correct their processes for next year.

“In some cases, Pearson inadvertently provided inaccurate or unclear guidance on the use of calculators during testing,” Overland said. “In these instances, we followed up quickly to help local school officials take corrective action.”

Here are the districts and schools the state says had students incorrectly use calculators on this year’s ISTEP:

  • Covington Christian School, Covington
  • Eastbrook South Elementary, Eastbrook Schools
  • Eastern Hancock Elementary School, Eastern Hancock County Schools
  • Emmanuel-St. Michael Lutheran School, Fort Wayne
  • Frankfort Middle School, Frankfort Community Schools
  • George M Riddle Elementary School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Lasalle Elementary School, School City of Mishawaka
  • New Haven Middle School, East Allen County Schools
  • Rochester Community Middle School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Rochester Community High School, Rochester Community Schools
  • Saint Boniface School, Lafayette
  • Saint Joseph High School, South Bend
  • Saint Roch Catholic School, Indianapolis
  • Silver Creek Middle School, West Clark Community Schools
  • St. Louis de Montfort School, Lafayette
  • Tennyson Elementary School, Warrick County Schools
  • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, School City of Hammond
  • Trinity Christian School, Indianapolis
  • Waterloo Elementary School, DeKalb County Schools
  • Westfield Middle School, Westfield-Washington Schools

This story has been updated to include comments from Pearson.