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High Failure Rate on Algebra 1 Exam in High School Underscores Need for Targeted Math Improvements

April 28, 2000
The first implementation of standardized grading scales for the countywide exam in Algebra 1 for high school students occurred this past January, and the results show that only 36 percent of the high school students (primarily ninth graders) passed the exam. A significantly higher percentage (79 percent) of high school students actually passed the course because the test counts for only one-quarter of the final grade.

"The high failure rate on the final exam -- particularly when disaggregated by race and ethnicity -- raises important issues about the development of mathematics skills of students prior to high school, the link between actual course instruction in high school and the content of exam, and student preparation and motivation to pass the exam," said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report today [Friday, April 28] to the Board of Education.

"The results reflect a pattern of underachievement within our school system that must be corrected if we are to address the need to close the gap in student performance by race and ethnicity and raise the bar for student achievement within all of our schools," Dr. Weast said.

African American students and Hispanic students failed the test at the rate of 80 percent for each group, compared to 54 percent among Asian American students and 50 percent among White students.

A high failure rate among all high school students (64 percent) was expected when standardized grading scales were imposed this year to address the wide variance in performance standards identified last year among high schools. Several new mathematics initiatives proposed for next year as part of the Board of Education's requested operating budget were designed, in part, to address this issue.

* Algebra 1 Instructional Specialists -- The request for six Algebra 1 Instructional Specialists at a total cost of $373,242 would provide master teachers who would serve as front-line support to schools and teachers needing assistance in staff development, model standards-based lessons, and facilitate implementation of instructional best practices in the teaching of Algebra 1.

* Teacher Training -- The request for specific staff development funds of $116,004 would provide middle school and high school mathematics teachers with training on content, technologies, and strategies that support student success in Algebra 1.

* Summer Programs -- The request for summer programs for Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1 Preparation at a total cost of $154,334 would provide three-week summer programs to prepare middle school students for success in Algebra 1.

These initiatives -- along with other improvements in mathematics instruction at the elementary and secondary levels, including early childhood initiatives -- were not included in the county executive's recommended budget and are now under consideration by the Education Committee of the County Council. However, because of the spending affordability limits, the Board of Education was obligated to identify these initiatives as potential non-recommended reductions. Altogether, the Board had to identify non-recommended reductions of $16.3 million. Efforts are ongoing to have these critically important initiatives fully funded by the County Council.

Already under way is the effort to implement a comprehensive audit of the K-12 mathematics curriculum, which the Board of Education recently authorized with the acceptance of the contract with Phi Delta Kappa International. The audit will address the question of whether the school system has a challenging curriculum and an operationally sound instructional management and delivery system. This audit and the concurrent initiatives identified in the budget are in direct response to the findings and recommendations from Our Call to Action last November, which raised important and timely questions about the consistency, continuity, and rigor of our curriculum.

The immediate question is whether the results this year among high school students reflect a true assessment of their ability. In order to ensure the validity of the examination, student performance on every item was analyzed by the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Department of Applied Research and Evaluation and found to be an accurate assessment of the curriculum required for the Algebra 1 course. The exam also was reviewed externally by staff at the Maryland State Department of Education to ensure that it matched in content and format the upcoming state high school assessment in Algebra.

Prior to this year, the grading scales used by individual schools ranged from 58 percent to 33 percent as the minimum percentage necessary to receive a "D" grade. This year, the grading scale was standardized countywide at 60 percent as the minimum for a "D" grade. The remaining grading scales are 70 to 79 percent equaling a "C" grade, 80 to 89 percent equaling a "B" grade, and 90 to 100 percent equaling an "A" grade.

Middle schools, by comparison, have consistently used this standardized grading scale for the past several years. This year, 89 percent of the middle school students taking the Algebra 1 test earned a passing grade. Differences in performance of middle and high school students may be affected by several factors. Currently, middle school students must pass the exam in order to earn high school credit for taking algebra in middle school. In high school, the exam counts 25 percent of a student's final grade. Therefore, middle school students may be more motivated to take the exam seriously. In addition, the middle school Algebra 1 course reflects an accelerated mathematics program for advanced students.


Note: Attached are data tables (in PDF format) comparing failure rates on the Algebra 1 exam and passing rates for the Algebra 1 course for high school and middle school students for the first semester of this year (1999-2000) and last year (1998-99).

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