Testing, testing: Some high schoolers to take state math exams twice

Ninth graders across New York State are reckoning with the new, tougher Common Core curriculum, which culminates at the end of the school year with an algebra test they must pass in order to graduate.

But it looks like some will get a second shot at success.

In March, the New York State Department of Education sent out a memo saying it would allow high school students to earn graduation credit this school year by passing either the Common Core exam or the older Regents algebra exams, last updated in 2005.

An excerpt from a recent Algebra I Regents exam, required for high school graduation. The test is being phased out to make way for a new, tougher standard under the Common Core curriculum.

An excerpt from a recent Algebra I Regents exam, required for high school graduation. The test is being phased out to make way for a new, tougher standard under the Common Core curriculum.

For ninth graders who started this month, there’s a catch: If their districts want to count the older, easier tests, their students will have to take both the old exams and the tough new ones.

As education officials had expected, New York students performed dismally on the new Common Core exams for 3rd through 8th graders, first administered in June 2013. Statewide, just 27.4 percent of 8th graders received a passing grade for math.

By contrast, in 2012, the most recent year for which scores are available, 82 percent passed the Algebra I Regents high school exam.

The transition plan, which allows districts to elect to take the higher of a student’s two scores, could not only help more high school students graduate; it could also be a boon to teachers and administrators, whose evaluations will in part be based on how well their students perform on their exams.

In July, the State Board of Regents approved an emergency action that codifies the transition plan but is written in a way that does not specifically guarantee current ninth graders the opportunity to take both tests. The State Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Nonetheless, districts across the state are planning to administer both the old and new tests to ninth graders. The New York City Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment. But it continues to circulate a list of graduation requirements it first published in May that says students may fulfill the Regents requirement by passing either test, suggesting that the city will administer both the new and old examinations at the end of the school year.

The Common Core Math and English exams are scheduled for June 3 statewide. The old Algebra I test will be administered later in the month.

Some education observers suggest that the state Board of Regents made the move with an eye on graduation and dropout rates.

Professor Arnold Dodge of Long Island University’s College of Education, Information and Technology, who is critical of the state’s use of standardized tests, praised the change as a proactive step to avoid a potential dropout crisis, but suggested that the Board of Regents was “pushed by politics, not pedagogy.”

“They are making up a new formula because they are getting so much pushback from people who saw what happened with the 3rd- through 8th-grade tests” said Dodge.

School administrators are now faced with having to prepare their teachers and students to deal with both the old and new exams.

“Teachers are being asked to work in a schizophrenic way,” said James Viola, director of government relations for the School Administrators Association of New York State.

“Kids will be the ones to suffer,” said Viola. “Its been muddied. Teachers are focused on Common Core transition, so they will not be preparing students for the 2005 tests.”

Viola points out that the two tests cover different material. Under the new Common Core standards, some math topics have been removed to allow for deeper exploration of concepts considered more central to each discipline.

He predicts that scores on both tests “will be somewhat depressed.”

When she heard that she might be required to take two tests come June, Anna Feldman, a 9th grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in Morningside Heights, quipped, “I vote no!” Informed that the higher of the two scores would determine her eligibility to graduate, she added, “If you did really bad, you should have the option to take the easier test. The school district should not decide for you. All of those tests are nerve-racking.”

The state Education Department staff report to the Regents Board indicates that the change does not impose any direct costs to the state, school districts or charter schools, and that any indirect costs are “minimal and capable of being absorbed using existing school resources.”

Administrators beg to differ.

“Teachers, proctors, accommodations for students with disabilities and grading all cost money,” said Viola.

While the state will pay for the production of the additional tests, Robert Lowry, Jr., deputy director for advocacy, research and communications for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, suggests that many of the other costs of the additional testing will be absorbed by the districts.

“We need to get our own members thinking about the implications,” said Lowry. “It will cost money and time, but can you afford not to?”

Both Viola and Lowry expect nearly universal participation by districts in the option to take both tests at the end of the school year.

“I can’t imagine districts saying it will cost too much time or money. Forget about the money — it’s crucial that students be allowed to take both tests,” said Lowry.

As a case in point, Lowry pointed to the affluent village of Rockville Centre in Nassau County.

In Rockville Centre, students often take Algebra I in the eighth grade. Last year, these students took both the new Common Core eighth grade math test and the old Regents Algebra I test.

According to Lowry, 95 percent of those students passed the old Regents, but fewer than 40 percent were proficient on the Common Core math test.

Dr. Carol C. Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, said that she knew of students who got perfect scores on the old Regents, but achieved a failing Level 2 on the eighth grade Common Core test, out of 4.

“It is chaotic,” remarked Burris. “We in this profession feel as though we are living through chaos, and that we are the ones expected to pick up the pieces.”

Burris notes that if her district does decide to administer both tests, eighth graders there will end up sitting for three math standardized tests this year: an initial assessment to measure growth for teacher evaluation purposes, the old Regents exam, and the new one.

The Board of Regents plans to vote at its October meeting to make the emergency rule change permanent, applying to exams in 2014.

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