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. 

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.