Concerns mount over tougher Algebra Regents test, and officials promise a review

New York’s cautious transition to the Common Core standards in high school math is off to a rocky start.

One month after high school freshmen across the state took a new, harder Algebra Regents exam for the first time without an older version available as a fallback option, teachers say unexpected numbers of their students didn’t pass and some of their best-prepared fell short of the score needed to qualify for an advanced diploma.

Whether that holds true across the city and state is not yet clear, since data for this year is not yet available. Last week, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she had heard the pass rates were “about the same” as last year. But state education officials say a review of the exam and its scoring is now underway — signaling that they are open to altering their course, or are preparing to respond to the concerns.

The responses reflect an uneasiness that teachers, principals and district officials continue to have about the pace of New York’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards and the new tests meant to measure them, the state’s most ambitious changes to education policy in recent years. If students are struggling to pass this year’s algebra exam, many are asking, what does that mean for future students after the state makes the test even harder to pass, something it plans to do in three years?

“We’re in the midst of a phase-in process that people in the field are concerned is not achievable,” former deputy education commissioner Ken Wagner acknowledged in June, in an uncharacteristically grim assessment of a policy that he helped implement. “They’re not convinced that we can get to those higher learning standards.”

State officials have been working to minimize concerns for years as they prepared to introduce a new Algebra Regents exam. They knew they wanted to avoid a steep drop in pass rates like the one the rest of the state experienced in 2013 on reading and math exams for students in younger grades, which added to a growing wave of parent concern about testing and new learning standards.

So officials treaded cautiously, waiting longer to make the switch and adjusting the scoring in a way meant to ensure that consistent number of students would pass the new algebra test.

“We know that all sorts of bad things happen to students if they don’t graduate,” Wagner said.

But concerns about the test have not abated in the weeks since the June test, as the state’s score-setting policies became a focus of teacher blogs and parent message boards. Students need to answer a lot more of the exam’s 37 questions correctly than before to earn a score just beyond a passing 65 on the new test, and teachers say many of their top students earned scores in the low 70s on a 100-point scale, expecting scores in the 80s.

Among those concerned is Roger Tilles, a member of the Board of Regents who said he and his colleagues have received a “considerable” number of complaints.

“These are people who believe Common Core is good, so it’s not the typical anti-testing, anti-Common Core crowd,” Tilles said. “I hear that and I’ve raised a lot of questions with staff.”

The new tests have fewer multiple choice questions and more extended-response questions, which reflect the literacy elements that flow through all grades and subjects of the new standards. The tests also focus more on quadratic equations, a concept previously covered in an advanced algebra course. And whereas the old tests used algebraic notation to present equations, teachers say they’ve been surprised to see different ones, such as the function notation, used on the new tests.

“We do a lot more discussion and critiquing, which I’d never done previously,” said Luke Schordine, a math teacher at Queens Metropolitan High School, who noted that weaker students struggled with those aspects. “But as far the test being a gateway to graduation, I feel like it’s not a great test.”

Sarah Prendergast, who teaches at the NYC iSchool in SoHo, said 96 percent of her students earned at least a 75 on the old Regents exam in 2014, and none failed. This year, her average score fell from an 84 to a 70, and a few failed. (The New York Post reported that the pass rate fell from 50 to 24 percent at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.)

Prendergast acknowledged that the tests are more challenging, but she said she thought the scoring changes accounted for the decline.

“The biggest change in the test is one that students, and maybe even a lot of teachers, probably won’t notice on testing day,” she said.

New data about last year’s test-takers offers a limited look at how a broader swath of New York City students might have fared this year.

In June 2014, when the Common Core test was given for the first time, students had the option to take the older test as well. Not all students took both, but among the more than 54,000 city students who did, 72 percent passed the old exam, while 56 percent passed the new one, according to the city.

Of the students who failed the new exam, 43 percent — about 10,000 students — passed the old one.

David Rubel, a New York City-based education consultant who earlier this year posted a 14-page analysis of last year’s Common Core Regents exam results, said the gap shows that the state’s efforts keep pass rates the same missed the mark.

“It’s a huge red flag,” said Rubel.

Rubel worries that English language learners and students with disabilities could be disproportionately affected. Of the roughly 9,600 English language learners who took the new test in 2014, when the old test was available as a safety net, 26 percent passed. Of the larger group who took the old exam over three test administrations last school year — more than 23,700 students — half passed.

“To see these numbers I think really raises some concerns about what graduation rates will look like in the next couple of years, especially in New York City, which has such a large population of high-need students,” said Christian Villenas, a senior policy analyst with Advocates for Children of New York. “This is very troubling.”

In an statement, two officials from the state’s assessment office said that Rubel’s analysis was premature because he did not use a full year’s worth of results. (Students can retake the exams, which are offered three times a year, until they pass.) Assistant education commissioner Candy Shyer, who recently retired, acknowledged that the state has data needed to make comparisons between the old and new tests but had not made it public yet. A spokesman for the State Education Department declined further comment.

Pressure on state officials is likely to increase. Under current policy, the passing scores will shift in two years. Students entering sixth grade this fall will be the first group to be required to demonstrate “full proficiency” on the state’s Common Core-aligned Regents exams when they reach high school — a much higher bar.

In his final public comments on the issue, Wagner urged the Regents to shift their focus toward ensuring the high school class of 2022 would be ready to do so.

“The last thing we want to do is wait too much longer before we really start discussing this process,” Wagner said. “The students who are going to have to pass these exams will be entering ninth grade in just a few years from now.”

Correction: The students who will first be measured against the state’s new Common Core standards in high school are entering sixth grade, not seventh grade. June 2014 was the first year that the Common Core algebra test was administered.