Consortium’s Algebra Test Again Yields Poor Results

By Sean Cavanagh — October 01, 2009 5 min read

States that voluntarily took part in a demanding test of advanced algebra skills, given for a second straight year, again saw large proportions of their students struggle with that math content.

Yet the test’s sponsors cite the effort as evidence of states’ willingness to band together to create common assessments—a possibility that interests many policymakers—even if the test results are unflattering.

At least 80 percent of students in all 13 states that participated in the exam this spring failed to meet the test’s threshold for being prepared for entry-level college math. That poor showing mirrored the results from last year, when the Algebra 2 test was first piloted. Four states also took part in a separate Algebra 1 test this year, and the scores were also weak.

Officials from Achieve, the Washington organization that arranged the test and released the results last week, were not surprised, citing the test’s difficulty.

But as policymakers around the country weigh the concept of setting common standards and assessments across states, Achieve officials argue that the exams reflect states’ interest in crafting multistate exams with very demanding content.

Despite seeing low test scores in the first year of the Algebra 2 test, “these states have stayed the course,” the authors say in a report on the results. “No state alone could do what the [test-taking states] have managed together.”

Interest in common multistate tests has risen in recent months. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he will set aside $350 million from the education-related pool of stimulus aid known as Race to the Top funding to help states devise shared assessments. If states combine their efforts, they could create more effective tests across subjects, at a lower cost, Mr. Duncan argues. (“Duncan Unveils Details on Race to the Top Aid,” June 15, 2009.)

The secretary has also voiced support for an ongoing effort to establish common standards and assessments led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Forty-eight states have joined that project. Achieve, which was formed by governors and business leaders in the mid-1990s, is a partner in that venture. (“Revised Draft of ‘Common Core’ Standards Unveiled,” Sept. 21, 2009.)

Some have questioned whether states will resist taking part in shared assessments, out of fear that their students will fare poorly. But Achieve’s president, Michael Cohen, said the algebra endeavor showed that was not so.

“This really is a race to the top,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. “In this environment, this should be heartening.”

The pilot test grew out of the work of Achieve’s American Diploma Project, a network of 35 states that are working together to raise high school academic standards. Fifteen of those states formed an “assessment consortium” to devise Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 end-of-course exams.

Comparisons Unavailable

Math 'Mastery'

Only in rare instances did more than a quarter of students reach the “mastery” level on Algebra 2 content.

06algebra c1s

SOURCE: American Diploma Project

Thirteen states took part in the Algebra 2 test this year: Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. In addition, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island piloted the first Algebra 1 test this year. Participation in the Algebra 2 test varied enormously, from less than 400 students in Rhode Island to 45,000 in Indiana.

No comparisons between last year’s and this year’s scores are available, because very different populations of students were tested, and Achieve did not have a valid method of comparing results, Mr. Cohen said. In addition, the two sets of scores were reported differently. Last year’s results were based on the percent of items answered correctly; this year’s were reported in three performance categories: “well-prepared,” “prepared,” and “not prepared.”

Success in Algebra 2 is widely regarded as a sign of a student’s preparation for college-level math. Achieve’s performance standards were based on research studies and advice from state officials, college math faculty, and others.

More than four-fifths of students in all participating states wound up in the not-prepared category in Algebra 2. Massachusetts had the highest share of students scoring in the combined well-prepared and prepared categories, at 19 percent, though fewer than 600 students were tested. North Carolina was among the highest-scoring states, with 18 percent of its 2,551 tested students scoring in those categories. Indiana, which tested more students than any state, saw 17 percent reach either the well-prepared or prepared mark.

Minnesota, which has fared well on federally administered tests, had only 6 percent of students in the top two categories, though only 1,164 students were tested in Algebra 2.

In Algebra 1, Achieve judged students’ performance in four categories: “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic,” and “below basic.”

Of the four participating states, Kentucky had the highest percentage of students reaching proficient or advanced in Algebra 1, at 25 percent, though only 520 students took the test. Rhode Island, where 2,416 students took part, had just 8 percent reach proficient or advanced. At least 54 percent of students in all four states scored below basic.

On-Campus Expectations

William McCallum, a mathematics professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, said in an e-mail that poor scores were to be expected on a test that sought to gauge students’ “mastery” of difficult math. He questioned whether the Achieve exam had too narrow a focus on college math preparation, as opposed to math needed for work and life.

One factor in the low scores, he added, could have been that students did not take the exam as seriously as they would a high-stakes test—which Mr. Cohen acknowledged was a possibility. Even so, Mr. McCallum said, the proportion of struggling students “shouldn’t be as high as it is here.”

College math standards are not as uniform as they might seem, observed Mr. McCallum, who directs his university’s math department. Many college faculty regard calculus or precalculus as the first authentic college-level math course—a point of view that seems reflected in Achieve’s test, he said.

Yet many college math departments also offer less-demanding math classes with titles such as “college algebra,” Mr. McCallum said, which are taught for credit by part-time or contract faculty.

“Colleges send mixed messages to students about what is expected,” he said. “I think the Achieve Algebra 1 and 2 tests could be very useful, if they lead to serious conversations between schools and universities about this.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Consortium’s Algebra Test Again Yields Poor Results


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