NY's proposal to 63% pass rate in Algebra: make the test easier

Call it the Common Core Curve. The New York Times reports that the higher performance expectations cited frequently by Common Core curriculum advocates turned out to be a little embarrassing to Empire State educators when it came to proficiency in algebra. Under the new curriculum, performance on the statewide aptitude tests dropped from a pre-CC 72% to 63%. The answer? In New York, one proposal is to lower the bar:

In 2013, concerned that high school graduates were not prepared for college, the State Board of Regents revamped the exams students must pass to graduate, starting with the English and Algebra I tests. The board decided that, where previously students needed a score of only 65 on a 100-point scale to pass, in coming years they would have to score at a “college- and career-ready” level, which this year was deemed to be a 79 in English, and a 74 in Algebra.

The result: On the 2015 Algebra I exam, which was supposed to align with the new Common Core curriculum, the percentage of students passing fell to 63 percent, down nine points from the old exam last year. And less than a quarter of students scored at the college-ready level. In New York City, which has a concentration of poor and minority students, only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam. Just 16 percent reached the “college-ready” level.

Confronted with the consequences of higher standards, the Regents, like education officials across the country, are now rethinking them.

This fall, they established a committee to study the results on the new exams to determine, among other things, whether the bar for passing, which students would have to meet starting in 2022, had been set too high. (They had originally said the class of 2017 would need the higher scores to pass, but last year decided to push that back.)

MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, said no decision had been made. “Does it look reasonable right now?” she said of the “college-ready” standard. “I would say, no, it doesn’t. And I would say, what we have to do is we have to keep our eye on that.”

The most amusing part? This test was supposed to be graded on a curve:

Before the new exam was given, the Regents had said they intended to set the grading so the same number of students passed as had before, but that did not happen.

In other words, the regents even failed to set up a curve that would have hidden the problem in algebra instruction. Rather than focusing on fixing the problem, the regents at least seem open to the idea of lowering the bar, either in the test itself or the curve to allow students to pass it. The issue for the regents is that the number of students that fail the test forces them to offer more resources for individualized remedial instruction, as well as increasing the number of times the test must be taken.

The root of the problem, however, is the education itself. As the NYT’s Kate Taylor notes, it’s not that the testing is too rigorous and disproportionally represents those who will struggle in algebra at the next stage of education. Colleges and universities are having to deal with increasing numbers of students who require remedial work in mathematics. Lowering the curve for passage and/or making the test easier only allows the state’s education system to continue ducking the problem and passing the buck to colleges and universities.

Nor is this a new problem; it didn’t start with Common Core, and it won’t end with its departure. In the early 1980s, I was the student representative on the Curriculum Committee at Cal State Fullerton when the university began proposing what we called “99 courses” (below the 100 code for most entry-level freshman courses) — remedial math, remedial English, remedial composition, etc. The committee objected on two points: first, that any remedial work should be handled by the plentiful number of two-year community colleges in the area, and second, that this effort should have been shouldered by the high schools, if not middle schools. The administration refused to budge, though, and the courses were added.

Regardless of which curriculum gets used, the issue is that primary education is failing to adequately instruct students on basic algebra, a skill set that is necessary not just for college but also in many trade schools as well. (Try becoming an electrician without understanding both algebra and trigonometry.) The rush to declare Common Core the solution to these ills is misguided at best, and seems more like a bright and shiny distraction from the real issues at hand.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023