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. 

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”