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.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County