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Report on Algebra 1 Recommends Students Pass the Exam in Order to Receive Credit for the Course

May 12, 2000
A new report on the results of the first semester Algebra 1 exam recommends that students should not be able to receive credit for the course without taking and passing the exam and that specific training should be mandatory for all new Algebra 1 teachers to familiarize them with the curriculum changes, test format, best practices, and use of the revised curriculum guides.

These were among the recommendations presented to the Board of Education this week [Tuesday, May 9] based on the findings of a report entitled Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap in Algebra: A Review of the First Semester Test Results in Algebra 1 as an Example of Building a System of Shared Accountability.

In addition, a resolution that would direct the superintendent to "consider ways in which students would be required to take and pass a final exam in order to receive full credit for the course" was introduced on Tuesday by Board President Patricia B. O'Neill. The resolution, which will be considered at the next scheduled meeting on May 22, would cover all final exams beginning with Algebra 1.

Mrs. O'Neill's resolution would also direct that the necessary steps be taken "to ensure that, as countywide final exams are phased in, a process for standardized assessment and test administration is implemented for all students."

If approved, the measure would also require a review of all training needs for teachers and principals in middle and high school who are responsible for implementing final exams, specifically Algebra 1. It also would require that steps be taken to ensure that teachers and principals are familiar with the changes in the specified curriculum, the test format, proven best practices, and the use of the latest curriculum guides.

The resolution was based on the findings of the report presented to the Board by Dr. Pamela Hoffler-Riddick, the community superintendent for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson, Wheaton and Walt Whitman Clusters. She was assigned to delve into the Algebra 1 results after preliminary test data revealed a significant failure rate among high school students. The report was produced in collaboration with Dr. Marlene Hartzman and Dr. John Larson of the Department of Applied Research and Evaluation.

"The report provides a compelling overview of Grade 9 student performance in the Algebra 1 course, the validity of the Algebra 1A final exam, the preparation of students for this critical element of the high school academic program, and a school-by-school analysis of performance data," said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools.

Among the major findings of the report was a detailed confirmation of the disparity in student performance when disaggregated by race and ethnicity -- including differences even among students with the same predictive score on the math criterion-referenced test.

"Even among students with the same levels of pre-high school math preparation, high schools still differ in the effectiveness of Algebra 1 instruction," the report said. "Several high schools produce higher rates of passing the Algebra 1 exam than do other high schools working with students who have the same eighth grade math scores or similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

"High schools differ in their percentages of students passing the Algebra 1 exam, and much, but not all, of those differences are due to differences in the students' levels of math preparation from the elementary and middle school years," the report said.

"Those more successful high schools need to be studied further in order to discover the 'best practices' for instruction, training, and/or staff organization that may be emulated in other schools."

The report found that using test results in Algebra 1 provides a useful model for underscoring the "necessity for an accountability model that carefully balances school performance and school improvement to profile schools over time."

"Instructional leadership must focus on minimizing the variation of teaching quality classroom by classroom," the report said. "Schools must not view the process of continuous improvement as a competition between schools, but take this as an opportunity to search and aim for excellence."

Dr. Weast told the Board of Education that the results of the Algebra 1 testing confirm that "students who are well prepared and who participate in an accelerated mathematics program in elementary and middle school do well on the Algebra 1 exam. Those who take algebra as part of the regular comprehensive high school program do not fare as well."

The superintendent noted that the performance differs greatly among white and Asian students, who dominate the enrollment in middle school Algebra 1 courses, in comparison to African American and Hispanic students, who take the course primarily in high school. "The success rate on the exam greatly favors the middle school students," he said.

The use of a countywide exam for Algebra 1 presages the implementation of the high school graduation assessments envisioned by the Maryland State Department of Education. Dr. Weast told the Board that "our experiences provide a window of opportunity for the Montgomery County Public Schools in understanding the dynamics of high-stakes assessments when so many students fail a local course examination.

Dr. Weast said 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 the exam, and student preparation and motivation to pass the exam.

Several recommendations from the report focused on implementing best practices for school leadership and instructional delivery:

* Principals should review the master schedule using these profiles to make informed decisions regarding teacher assignments.

* Principals should determine the number of teachers of Algebra 1 who have taken the MSDE approved credited Algebra course "MA65" given between 02/98 and 02/00. This course focused on the Algebra Core Learning Goal and new course objectives. Completion of this course should be required to increase teacher performance.

* Standardization of course grading practice within and between schools should be established.

* As countywide final exams are phased in, standardized assessment and test administration practices must be employed.

The report also focused on possible next steps for future study:

* Productivity and proficiency profiles should be provided for all teachers and principals for 2000 administration as a baseline year.

* Subsequent studies need to explore the relationship between course placement K-8 and student success rates on the Algebra exams.

* An analysis of the revised middle school curriculum being piloted in selected schools should be conducted prior to systemwide implementation. A comparison between Math 8 CRT scores before and after implementation of the new scope and sequence should be used to determine if curricular changes increase student performance on the Math 8 CRT results and produce greater success rates for students taking Algebra as first-time ninth graders.

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