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.”

Numbers game

Colorado is about to release a torrent of test results. Here are four storylines worth watching.

Sheridan School District sixth grader Monica Dinh takes part in a practice session last year (Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post)

The state education department is scheduled Thursday to publicly release a mammoth amount of data detailing how Colorado students performed on last spring’s standardized tests.

We’ll get to dive into state, district and school results from English, math, science and social studies tests, the PSAT and SAT, and student academic growth, which tracks how much students learn each year compared to their academic peers.

The data — beloved or loathed depending on which educator you ask — is supposed to gauge how well students grasp the state’s academic standards that are designed to prepare them for either college or a career.

The state also uses the results, along with other factors such as graduation rates, to issue quality ratings for schools and districts. And in some instances, teachers are rated based on the data.

Here is background and some storylines to keep in mind in advance of the release:

First a reminder of where we stand:

Three years ago, the state made a monumental shift in its testing system. Colorado was one of about a dozen states to drop paper-and-pencil standardized tests in favor of a new multi-state computer-based test.

The PARCC tests would measure critical thinking, a major component of the state’s new academic standards, which devalued rote memorization.

Prior to the first release, school officials in Colorado and across the nation warned that test scores would likely be low considering the newness of the academic standards and tests.

Indeed, they were.

In 2015, only 43 percent of fourth graders met the state’s expectations on the English test. Math was worse: Only 37 percent of third graders were able to complete math equations at grade level.

In 2016, the state saw a slight uptick in scores, mirroring national trends.

However, state officials worried about how far behind students with learning disabilities were compared to their peers.

Here’s a look at the changes in test scores in English and math:

English

Math

 

With three years of data from PARCC, we can — finally — talk about trends. But what are we going to learn that we didn’t already know?

For the last two years, state and school district officials have warned about two things: First, don’t compare the results of PARCC to that of previous standardized tests. Second, they said we needed three years of data to pinpoint trends in student performance.

Why three years?

Derek Briggs, a professor at School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder who also sits on the technical advisory board for PARCC, said one reason why we might need three years of data is because of exaggerated bumps sometimes found in the second year of a new standardized test.

“One explanation for this sort of trend was that it would take teachers/schools a year to figure out the emphasis on the new assessment, so in the first year, the alignment between teaching and instruction isn’t optimal, so student performance in the first year is depressed,” he said in an email. “Then in the second year, it snaps back up once instruction and assessment are better aligned.”

Briggs added that so far, no state that updated its test to align to the Common Core State Standards like Colorado did had a second year bump.

So, now we have three years of data: What can we say?

It’s difficult to make sweeping declarations about state trends — especially in a local control state where so many decisions about what students learn is made at the school and district level.

But Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the Delaware-based Center for Assessment, said that at the three-year mark, school officials and parents alike can start to better understand what’s working or not at individual schools.

“It can serve as a gut check about a school’s general performance over time,” D’Brot said. “If you have three points that are moving upward or constantly moving downward, we can quickly create a story around that.”

It’s more difficult to draw conclusions if a school’s results are less consistent, he said.

And there are some state-level benefits.

“This trend data can help the state evaluate their own efforts to work with districts and schools,” he said. This is especially valuable when school leaders use a variety of data points including patterns of student growth.

The state is suppressing data in an effort to “protect student privacy.” How much will be redacted?

Colorado was once considered one of the most education data-friendly states. But beginning with the first release of PARCC data in 2015, the state began blacking out more school-level data than it had in the past.

The effects of the new so-called “suppression rules” were even more pronounced in the state’s 2016 release. The state shielded roughly 4,000 data points that year, frustrating education reform advocates who say this data helps parents make better decisions about schools.

Stay tuned to see what we won’t learn about school performance due to these rules after Thursday’s release.

After two years of delayed and drawn-out data releases, the state is giving us everything on time and all at once. But the promise of getting data back quicker is still elusive.

In 2015 and 2016, testing data dribbled out of the state education department over several months — state-level results first, then school level, then student growth data. This was a departure from a decades-long routine of releasing test score data in August.

On Thursday, the state will release almost everything all at once. (District and school performance data disaggregated by different student groups is expected within a month.) This is a major victory for the state and the makers of PARCC because one of the longest-running criticisms of the test was how long it took to get data back to schools.

Schools received their results in June, the earliest data has gotten back to the schools since the state switched to PARCC.

But the timeline still falls short of one of the promises of new tests and the demands of the State Board of Education, which going forward wants data back to schools within 30 days.

Is the state’s gradual move away from PARCC at the high school level working to curb the opt out movement?

In 2015, Colorado became one of the nation’s epicenters for the testing opt out movement. Thousands of high schoolers, backed by their parents, refused to take the PARCC exams, claiming they served no educational purpose.

In some cases, entire schools sat empty during the state’s testing window.

In response, lawmakers eliminated some high school tests and changed others. In 2016, more high school sophomores took the state’s tests than the year before. Policymakers hope additional changes at the ninth grade level, set to take effect next spring, will move even more families back to the state’s testing system.

Will the trend continue? We’ll find out on Thursday.

And finally, here’s a roundup of previous coverage you might find helpful:

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”