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.”

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

Starting early

It’s not just older students. Tennessee second-graders also started testing this week in nearly 100 districts

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.