score boost

More students passing New York state algebra exam, after outcry sparked by previous year’s test results

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

The percentage of New York students passing the state algebra exam rebounded this year after worrisome results the previous year raised concerns that graduation rates could take a hit.

Seventy-two percent of students passed Algebra I in 2015-16, according to data released by the State Education Department on Monday, nine percentage points higher than the share of students who passed the exam in 2014-15. Students are required to pass an algebra exam to graduate.

When state officials announced plans to switch to a more difficult Common Core algebra exam, officials said they would attempt to maintain similar passing rates to avoid a drop-off in graduation rates. But in 2014-15 — the first year in which the majority of students took the new exam — only 63 percent passed it, nine points lower than the percentage who passed the former “Integrated Algebra” test in 2013-14. That drop caused widespread concern the state had miscalculated and many students would be held back from graduation.

But Monday’s results are proof the slow phase-in of the Common Core exams is working, said Jhone Ebert, senior deputy commissioner for education policy.

“We’re very excited about the passing rates. It shows the hard work that the teachers have been [putting in] in their classrooms,” Ebert said. “They have higher expectations for their students.”

This year, more students passed the Algebra I exam statewide and in New York City, which saw a 10 percentage point increase, pushing the city’s passing rate to 62 percent.

It is unclear why the scores increased so dramatically, though Ebert said the bulk of the score increase is attributable to teachers and students getting accustomed to the more difficult exams.

The state also conducted “scale maintenance” last June, designed, in part, to keep the passing percentages roughly equal to what they were before the Common Core, which Ebert said could have played a small role in the increase. The score changes meant students had to answer roughly two fewer questions correctly in order to pass the June exam, but state officials said that could also indicate a harder test.

The algebra exam is symbolic of the tricky dance state education officials are trying to perform, as they work to give students more ways to earn a diploma while also maintaining the rigor of a New York state diploma. The algebra exam has long been a graduation roadblock for students in New York state. Many students end up taking — and failing — the exam several times, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “algebra whirlpool.”

Education consultant David Rubel pointed out that there are still many students who failed the test and could still struggle to graduate.

“Were they kids who almost passed and will the next time they take it? Or are they kids who are really struggling?” Rubel asked. “That, to me, is the real question.”

Recognizing the hurdle algebra presents, New York City instituted an “Algebra for All” initiative, which seeks to strengthen math supports in earlier grades, push more students to take algebra in middle school, and help all students be better prepared to take algebra by the time they reach high school.

On Monday, the city’s Department of Education officials celebrated the increase in scores.

“We’re pleased to see more of our students passing the Algebra I exam, and we’re investing in continued progress for all students through the Algebra for All initiative,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell. “By 2022, all students will have access to an algebra course in eighth grade and complete algebra no later than ninth grade.”

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.