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Bad Math Either Way

On Friday, 9/23/2016, Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins, representing the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS), will address Florida’s State Board of Education (FLBOE) at its scheduled meeting in Tampa. His prepared comments (linked here) indicate Florida’s “superintendents strongly support the Florida State Standards in… Mathematics” but they are requesting the reinstatement of the ““banking” of middle school Algebra I scores for high school accountability purposes.” Really? Have the superintendents discussed the standards with their math teachers? Do those teachers strongly support the current math standards? Or are the superintendents only concerned about shoring up their school grades? Apparently, FADSS thinks the standards are fine as long as the accountability system can be manipulated.  We can smell the accountabaloney.

We previously documented the conversation surrounding the “banking” of middle school Algebra 1 scores in a recent blog focusing on the testimony for Palm Beach County Superintendent Robert Avossa at the 6/22/16 FLBOE meeting. Dr. Avossa suggested that the current system might lead to “gamesmanship” and result in false barriers being created that might prevent middle school students from being accelerated into advanced math classes. Anyone in public schools in Florida knows the gamesmanship has already begun.

Commissioner Pam Stewart explained: 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, requiring that school grades now must be based only on student performance in that specific school.” So, in the past, a high school’s Math Achievement grade reflected ALL the students, in that high school, who had passed the Algebra 1 EOC (which is a graduated requirement), whether they took the course in high school or not.  The new system only calculates Math Achievement based on the those students who pass Algebra 1 in high school.

Board Chair, Marva Johnson, thought this sounded like “bad math either way” and asked to see more data to clarify the situation.

Perhaps we can provide some clarity:

The current School grade calculation incentivizes middle schools to accelerate all students who score a Level 3 on the 7th grade Math FSA into Algebra 1 in 8th grade. (You can learn more about that here. Please note that, last January, the FLBOE declared that a Level 4 score was considered “proficient” and students scoring a level 3 receive official state score reports that state they “may need additional support for the next grade/course”, so the current School Grades formula incentivizes middle school students scoring a Level 3 to be skip a grade of math they are being told they would need extra assistance to complete.)

Students who score a level 1 or 2 on the 7th grade Math FSA, often find themselves in a remedial 8th grade Math course. These are the students who go on to take Algebra 1 in 9th grade.

When you look at the Algebra 1 EOC results, you see a dramatic drop in the passing rate between 8th and 9th grade (falling from 86% passing to just 37%).

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A closer look at those scores show there is an even more dramatic drop in the number of students excelling, scoring a level 4 or 5, on the assessment: more than half of the  8th graders (71% of the 7th graders and 85% of the 6th graders) score 4s and 5s, where only 9% of the 9th graders do.

In June, Commissioner Stewart suggested that teacher quality might be to blame, stating that the “best” math teachers in a middle school are likely assigned to teach Algebra, whereas, in high school, the “best” teachers are likely assigned to teach higher math courses, such as Calculus. We would like to point out that “teacher effectiveness”, in Florida, is dependent on student test scores, so, as long as the middle schools are allowed to skim off all the most talented math students, then even the most amazing high school Algebra teacher will find it difficult to match the passing rates achieved by the accelerated middle school students. Common sense suggests the teachers assigned to teach the most gifted math students will, likely, achieve the highest scores and, thus, be labeled the most effective.

Many middle schools have accelerated 7th graders into Algebra 1 (in 2016, almost 9% of the Algebra 1 EOC students were 7th graders). Those students go on to take Geometry in 8th grade and Algebra 2 in 9th grade.  The Algebra 2 EOC has a significantly higher failure rate that the other math EOCs, with only 40% passing in 2016, including only 77% of 9th graders passing (results here). For the most advanced students, Algebra 2 may be the only Math EOC they will take in high school and it is the one with the most dismal passing rates. (We have written about the Algebra 2 EOC in detail.)

The high school Math Achievement calculation only reflects the passing scores on Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry EOCs, neglecting the performance of students in high level math courses. When these scores are announced publicly, they do NOT reflect the true quality of math instruction in that school, rather they underestimate it by focusing attention only on the the achievement of the lowest performing students and the most difficult to pass test (Algebra 2). Such calculations mislead the public and do nothing to “provide an easily understandable way to measure the performance of a school”, the stated goal of the school grading system.

We agree with Ms. Johnson, it is bad math either way. By incentivizing the acceleration of all Level 3 7th grade FSA Math students into 8th grade Algebra 1 AND refusing to allow those scores to reflect math achievement in high school, Florida ensures that high school’s math achievement scores will reflect the performance of its most struggling students. Is that an accurate measurement of the overall performance of a high school? We think not.

Through its School Grade formula, Florida has created a system that incentivizes middle schools and punishes high schools at the same time. It IS bad math either way… it is accountabaloney, and it does NOTHING to improve math education in Florida.

We urge the Board of Education to ask serious questions about Florida’s math problems:

  1. When incentives lead to the acceleration of all level 3-5 math students in middle school, ensuring 9th grade Algebra classes contain the remaining level 1 and 2 math students, is it really fair to blame the low 9th grade EOC passing rates on the quality of the instructor?
  2. Are the current Math Standards really appropriate? Why aren’t 9th grade students prepared to take Algebra 1? Do students who are accelerated into Algebra in Middle School miss foundational math skills necessary for them to succeed in higher level math courses? Should the standards be adjusted in K-8 to better prepare these students for advanced math courses without skipping essential math skills?
  3. Is the Algebra 1 EOC a fair, reliable and valid assessment of Algebra 1 skills, especially for at-risk subpopulations of students (ESE, ELL, low income)? Why is the failure rate so high in high school? Do the K-8 standards fail to prepare these students for the rigors of Algebra 1 in 9th grade? How should the standards or sequence be adjusted so that all students can be successful in Algebra 1?
  4. What is the real problem with Algebra 2’s falling participation rates? The Algebra 2 EOC is a disaster. Students can pass the test by answering barely a quarter of the test questions correctly, yet still 60% of students FAIL it. Teachers report there are too many standards, the pace is too quick to allow real learning and the exam is a nightmare. Unless the Board insists on a overall review of the EOC and its standards, they should expect the participation rates to continue to decline and Florida’s national math rankings to continue to plummet.
  5. Who is responsible for the barriers to success in higher level math courses: the teachers (as Commissioner Stewart would like you to believe) or the system that incentivizes middle schools to accelerate student past foundational math skills, ill-preparing them for the rigors of higher math, and, simultaneously, punishes high schools for their inability to teach their most struggling math students to pass a flawed assessment?
  6. With plummeting NAEP scores and declining Algebra 2 participation rates, how will “banking Algebra 1 scores” serve to improve math instruction and performance in Florida?

As long as schools are graded based, primarily, on test scores, the gamesmanship will continue. As Chair Johnson said “it is bad math either way.” Unless the Board is willing to consider the real problems with the accountability system and the underlying standards, the games will continue and the children will be the losers.

It is bad math either way and it stinks of accountabaloney.

 

2 Comments

  1. Gina Lloyd

    Nice job of presenting the data in such a way that highlights the pitfalls, obscurities, and contradictions of this faulty and miserably ineffective system of “accountability” this state has. Everyone should be pushing these points in the faces of our local school boards and superintendents.

  2. Marie Maloney

    Students are failing on standardized tests because the tests are ridiculous and the curriculum is still an inch deep and a mile wide. How can we as educators allow a student to leave 3rd grade and still have them adding and subtracting with stick lines, fingers, calculators etc. for the numbers less than 20 and even worse how can they leave 4th grade without knowing their 1 – 12 times tables and expect them to be successful in 5th grade with fractions? Math becomes a nightmare and these students hate math. Really! Teach the basics and make sure students know it before moving on and deeper understanding will come when they reach high school courses. Here is another problem, we think the students who can do the math on level must be gifted and we allow them to go into an advanced class (in middle school)because they know so much more than the others. Really? Who thinks up this nonsense? So now I currently after 32 years of teaching mathematics at the high school level I look around my Algebra 1 classes and at my AP Calculus class and ask what caused the problem?
    Teachers – maybe 1 or 2 along the way
    A horrible curriculum – yes (inch deep mile wide)
    Parents – some of them – Those who don’t see the importance of an education, those who were pushed through like their children so their math skills lack too and those who do not have the time to sit and help for various reasons
    Politicians – yes to the ones who support the curriculum and yes to the ones who made the nation reduce the number of trade schools because everyone is going to college. (The AC repair person charged me $75 to just walk in my house LOL!)
    Does the nation really think that the intelligent people ALL go to college and the rest of the dummies are stuck doing menial work? How many of us “College Graduates” can fix a car, do any kind of plumbing, build a home physically(not on paper), install carpet, lay tile correctly on the diagonal, run electrical lines, cook for the snowbirds, use a jackhammer, drive an 18 wheeler, install cable lines, etc…….probably a few but not enough and if the world came to an halt I want the blue collar guy not the white collar guy as my friend.
    Wake up and smell the roses. Mathematics needs to be practical from the get go. The basics need to be learned before a student can move on. Until everyone understands that we are always going to have problems and we will always curve tests and we will always point the finger at someone else.
    The old joke goes like this:
    A high school teacher was asked why are your students failing and the reply was the middle school teacher did not teach them what they needed to learn. When the middle school teacher was asked they blamed the elementary teacher who then in turn blamed the preschool teacher who blamed the mother who blamed the father who said I am not even sure it is my offspring.

    PS – Oh I forgot the solution is to test them to death!

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