The Hazards of Playing the Accelerated Math Game

This is the Accountabaloney Math Blog where a superintendent admits administrators participate in “gamesmanship” to influence school grades and the Board of Education seems surprised, the board chair defines the accountabaloney as “bad math either way”, the vice chair wants to influence the legislature to force schools in his home district to make decisions they have already determined to be bad for students and the Commissioner seems stunned by something we have told her, over and over again, was going to happen.

On 6/22/2016, Palm Beach County Superintendent Robert Avossa testified before Florida’s State Board of Education (FLBOE), on behalf of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS). During that testimony, he suggested that the current accountability system was having unintended consequences, specifically when it came to encouraging middle school students to take Algebra 1 and other advanced math classes. He claimed the current accountability model encouraged “gamesmanship” and placed false barriers for high performing kids; in other words, it is full of accountabaloney.

You can watch the meeting here. The Algebra EOC discussion begins at around 1:54:00. Dr. Avossa claimed that the new accountability model no longer gives high schools credit for the Algebra scores its students obtained in middle school and this could lead individuals to prevent middle school students from taking advanced math classes.

This idea that there could be gamesmanship and/or unintended consequences to Florida’s accountability system, caught the attention of the Board. Commissioner Pam Stewart went on to clarify: In the previous accountability system, if a student in middle school passed Algebra 1, that score was “banked”, allowing both the middle and the high school to get credit for that child taking and passing the Algebra 1 EOC (state mandated and created End of Course exam). The new accountability calculation does not allow that. The law is now clear, “shored up in statute” per Ms. Stewart, that school grades now must be based only on student performance in that specific school. Ms. Stewart admitted that this could reverse incentivize individuals to “do something else.”

What Dr. Avossa pointed out was correct. Without the banked scores from their most advanced math students (who took the qualifying EOCs in Middle School) high schools could (and did) see their Algebra 1 EOC passing rates and their Math achievement scores fall. When high school grades are released to the community, the math component (which only measures student performance on Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2 EOCs), often does not reflect the performance of the school’s advanced math students, those enrolled in Trigonometry, Calculus and beyond. Is this a clear view of the overall quality of math instruction in these schools? I don’t think so. (Read more about School Grade Calculations here)

Commissioner Stewart went on to say “My follow up to that would be the incentive is in the middle school, because there is incentive for acceleration in the grading formula at the middle school level. That doesn’t help that high school principal, I get that, but, as the middle school principal, I have them first and it’s going to benefit me, and I think…” (at this is point, at 1:57:17, Dr. Avossa interrupts Comm. Stewart, and her irritation is clear, but he proceeds anyway.).

Dr. Avossa went on to suggest the FLBOE should look at the trends in the State of kids taking and passing Algebra in 8th grade, and question whether that portion of the law is inadvertently pushing kids not to take those higher level courses. To clarify, he goes on to give an example to consider:

“If there are 100 students in 9th grade that show up to my high school and 75 of them, the highest performing kids, have already taken Algebra and only 25% of them did not. They now take Algebra and the community will say ‘well, at this school only 16% of the kids passed Algebra’. It’s not really a true fact, they may have passed Algebra in 6th grade and yet the perception of the school is that Algebra is not being taught. What people don’t know is that you are teaching Algebra to kids who are either on or significantly below grade average.”

FLBOE Chair, Marva Johnson, replied “it sounds like bad math either way” (which, again, defines Accountabaloney).

At this point, my Monroe County neighbor and Vice-Chair of the FLBOE, John Padget, interjected that he “totally agreed”:

“We’ve had, in my county, with Take Stock in Children students, we’re encouraging them to do Algebra 1 in middle school so they can get ahead of the curve and have more time for advanced math courses in high school. And there is an institutional barrier against teaching and taking and passing Algebra 1 in middle school and I think that… is the kind of thing that should be on our legislative priority list; where we point this out to legislators, that this is an unintended consequence and we are not serving our students by continuing that.”

He went on to explain the benefits of taking Algebra in Middle school, which allows students to take additional, more advanced math classes in high school, like AP Statistics or Calculus. He said many middle school students “can do it but we don’t encourage them to do it.”

Chair Johnson, suggests they need more data because, she finds this counter-intuitive, since “the middle school principal is still incented to make sure those students are performing at whatever their aptitude allows, and so it almost would have to be systematic, where the superintendent was saying the school district performs better if you wait until you get to high school…” This is so outrageous to her (the idea that a superintendent might manipulate school grades in such a way) that she actually laughs while making this statement. (Message to Ms. Johnson: it is not funny… such manipulation, administrators making education decisions for students so that they will best impact school grades, are common. The system is corrupt.)

Commissioner Stewart then repeated that there is incentive in the middle school grade calculation for students to take high school courses. She wonders whether there needs to be similar incentives to encourage students taking math classes beyond Algebra 1 and Geometry because there was a drop in the participation in Algebra 2 this year in high school.


She paused at that point to shrug her shoulders at this surprising revelation and then went on to clarify that this drop in Algebra 2 participation was not because students were taking it in middle school, but because students weren’t taking it at all. (Yep, in 2016, almost 24,000 fewer students took the Algebra 2 EOC than in 2015, a significant drop of 15%.)

“I’ll add to that… I think it’s not the students deciding not to take it (Algebra 1) in middle school, it’s the adults and it does speak to…” (Here Avossa interrupted again, and the Commissioner is NOT happy… ) Dr. Avossa suggested that middle schools with high passing rates for Algebra 1 EOC are not “opening the door” and allowing too few students into those classrooms, claiming it is not just the result of state policy, but a result of local practices, as well. At this point the FLBOE decides to readdress these issues regarding advanced math at a future meeting.

As a parent of a middle school student in Monroe County, I must address Mr. Padget’s concern over the “institutional barrier” against taking Algebra 1 in middle school in our county. Four years ago, Monroe County lept at the chance to advance talented middle school math students into high school algebra. I can still remember the day this was announced at our school’s SAC meeting. Gifted 7th graders were skipped through 2 years of general math and placed in Honors Algebra 1, a high school course. The students were carefully chosen to participate in this program. Students who had shown promise in mathematics were recommended by their teachers based on their class performance (students who failed to complete assignments or turn in homework, for example, might be ineligible). Recommended students had to score high enough on an Algebra Readiness assessment before they were placed in the class. This was not without risk to the student: Algebra 1 Honors was a rigorous high school course, would result in a high school credit, the grade would be calculated into the student’s high school GPA (where a poor grade could ultimately affect college admissions). In addition, these students would be required to pass the state mandated EOC, which also served as a high school graduation requirement. Additionally, Florida education policy requires that, in order to graduate middle school, a student must take 3 separate and distinct math courses. This meant that, if a 7th grader failed Algebra, they could not retake it the following year (as that would have them taking Algebra twice in middle school, which is not allowed) and would therefore have to spend a year taking a low level math course before they could attempt Algebra again in 9th grade.

Initially, the program seemed to be a success. The passing rates for this specially selected group of Algebra 1 students was high and they continued to do well in Geometry in 8th grade. The problems came when they entered 9th grade and faced Algebra 2 and the new Florida Standards and brand new EOC. Things didn’t go well after that. Once successful students began dropping out of higher level math, choosing to take “College Readiness” math courses rather than Trigonometry or Calculus. It was the opinion of the high school math teachers that the students had missed some of the basic foundational math necessary to be successful in advanced courses. These experienced math teachers called for a review of the process of math acceleration, advocating for giving these students more time to develop essential math skills before advancing into Algebra 1.

On July 19, 2016, Monroe County School Superintendent Mark Porter reported that the District had intentionally pulled back on the number of students advanced into high school algebra during middle school and would no longer be aggressively pursuing points in the “Math Acceleration” portion of the state’s complicated middle school grading formula. The decision had been made because they had found, in the long term, it was not in the best interest of students. Students will still be screened for math acceleration, but decisions will be made on individual student basis and not with the intent of maximizing school grades.

So, when Commissioner Stewart and Vice Chair Padget complain that “it’s not the students, it’s the adults” causing the “problem”, I would suggest that, in this case, the adult educators in Monroe County looked at ”the problem” and, rather than blindly pursuing test scores or accountability measures, made decisions based on sound education practices and concern for appropriate math education for their students. Three cheers for them. Of course, the real “problem” is when bureaucrats in Tallahassee, like Stewart and Padget, believe they can tell what is going on in the classrooms based on test score data. They cannot.

As to Commissioner Stewart’s apparent shock that Algebra 2 participation is down… we were not surprised in the least. In October 2015, I gave public comment to the FLBOE regarding the flaws in the Algebra 2 EOC (watch here at 15:00) and begged for a complete review of the standards and the assessment. In November 2015, we wrote about the Algebra 2 EOC, the state assessment we believe to be abusive and the most egregious example of the problems with the current accountability system. Our blog post warned that, without dramatic policy reversals, parent confidence in the system would be irretrievable. Additionally, I personally met with Chancellor Herschel Lyons and Deputy Chancellor Mary Jane Tappen, in Tallahassee, to address my Algebra 2 concerns. To our knowledge, our concerns were dismissed.

We suspect the word has gotten out and students (and their parents) are choosing to avoid the abuse of Algebra 2 and its flawed EOC. Students, even those who once showed great promise in Mathematics, are not willing submit themselves to the abuses of the ridiculous Algebra 2 standards and the horrors of the state assessment. We do not believe further incentivizing high school students to take math beyond Algebra and Geometry is the solution (as Comm. Stewart suggested). Adding additional incentives will merely encourage more “gamesmanship.”

It IS encouraging that the FLBOE wants to look further into these issues. We commend Dr. Avossa for having the audacity to point out the existence of “gamesmanship” when it comes to the school grades formula. This “gamesmanship” should come as no surprise to anyone. Florida’s entire A-F School Grades system has created arbitrary measures of school quality, rewarded schools that achieved them and punished those that did not. When it comes to school grades, the stakes are high for everyone from the district level on down and when stakes are high, systems become corrupted. When school grades are calculated almost entirely based on student test scores (and resultant calculated learning gains), some (if not most) decisions will be made that are not in the best interest of the student but, rather, to ensure the test score that most benefits the school and/or district. This is the essence of Accountabaloney: the very system meant to measure and reward quality, has systematically destroyed that it was intended to measure.

Declining enrollment in Algebra 2 is just the tip of the iceberg. The FLDOE must remember that Florida’s 8th grade NAEP math scores are plummeting (read more here), showing the largest declines in the nation. How many red flags does one need? We hope the FLBOE will take a serious look at the advanced math (Algebra 1, 2, and Geometry) standards, sequence and assessment. Further bandaids/incentives, we believe, are not the answer but will only serve to pile on the accountabaloney. In future blogs we hope to outline teacher and student concerns regarding these courses and their associated EOCs. Stay tuned.










1 Comment

  1. ciedie aech

    PERFECT summary of all NCLB/ESSA insanity: The real problem is when bureaucrats think that they can tell what is going on in the classroom through a look at the test scores.

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