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87 percent of Middle School Students Pass Algebra 1 Test, as Failure Rate in High School Comes Under Review

May 3, 2000
Eighty-seven percent of students who took Algebra 1 in middle school for the first semester this year passed the countywide exam, an important accomplishment since more than one-third of ninth grade students takes the course before they reach high school.

In fact, the number of students taking Algebra 1 in ninth grade this year represented less than half of the students enrolled because so many students had already taken the course in middle school or were talking a math course at a level below algebra.

The widely different passing rates between middle school and high school (in which 64 percent of students enrolled in Algebra 1 failed the first semester exam) has sparked an intense inquiry by a review team that is analyzing issues related to student development and course selection, middle and high school course alignment, and teacher preparation and assignment.

Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, directed a special team to examine the high failure rates and the circumstances of each student's experience in Algebra 1. The team is led by Dr. Pamela Hoffler-Riddick, community superintendent for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson, Wheaton, and Walt Whitman clusters, who has a professional background in school accountability and instructional assessment.

"I expect that this review will provide us with the ability to make informed and timely decisions about strategies to improve student success in Algebra 1," Dr. Weast said in a memorandum to the Board of Education today [Wednesday, May 3]. "This review also will be critical in the development of the shared accountability system."

Among the review's initial findings:

* Less than half of the ninth grade class took Algebra 1 during the first semester and, therefore, the 64 percent failure rate was among only this smaller portion of the class, not the whole class.

* One-third of the ninth graders had taken the course in middle school and had already passed the test last year as a requirement to earn high school credit. Another 18.4 percent of the Grade 9 students were enrolled in mathematics courses below the level of Algebra 1 and had not taken Algebra 1 yet either in high school or middle school.

* Enrollment in Algebra 1 at the middle school level is growing, representing nearly 35 percent of the total number of secondary students taking the course in the first semester this year, up from 32 percent last year. The passing rate overall for the middle school students for the first semester this year was 87 percent on the exam.

* The middle school enrollment and passing rate reflect a significant disparity by race and ethnicity. More than 66 percent of the middle school students in Algebra 1 were white (2,383 of 3,536 students enrolled). Their passing rate on the exam was 90 percent. The 678 Asian American students enrolled in the course represented 19 percent of the total, and they also passed the exam at a rate of 90 percent. By comparison, only 293 African American students (8 percent) and 178 Hispanic students (5 percent) were enrolled in Algebra 1 systemwide in the middle schools, and their passing rates were 68 and 67 percent respectively.

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

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 1.

Prior to this year, the grading scales used by individual schools ranged from 58 percent to 33 percent as the minimum correct score necessary to receive a "D" grade. This year, the grading scale was standardized countywide at 60 percent as the minimum correct score 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. Differences in performance of middle and high school students may be affected by several factors. Currently, middle school students must pass the end of year 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.

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