What does it take to pass Florida’s Algebra 1 exam? A startlingly low score

By: - July 5, 2018 7:40 am

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For tens of thousands of public high school students, Florida’s crucial statewide Algebra 1 exam is a pathway – or a roadblock — to graduation. If they want to get their high school diplomas, kids have to pass the test.

But the public may not realize that the threshold to pass is startlingly low, state data show, raising questions about what students are supposed to know in math before leaving high school.

In fact, some students could pass the exam but still end up in college remedial classes to catch up on fundamental algebraic principles, the Florida Phoenix has found.

Setting a passing score is significant not only for graduation purposes but to let taxpayers know how students fare academically and how Florida portrays its public education system.

State officials, for example, have been touting that more and more students are passing the Algebra 1 state exam, though they have acknowledged that certain tests used to pass students have not been rigorous.

The situation is complicated and sometimes heartbreaking, because setting a passing score that is too low can mean students may not be prepared for college, work and the future. But setting a passing score too high can keep kids from getting a diploma, particularly students who struggle on the state Algebra exam. The state’s data show that minority students are particularly impacted. Students who fail the test can still get what’s called a “certificate of completion,” but it’s not equivalent to a standard diploma.

In the high-poverty Gadsden County School District in North Florida, Supt. Roger Milton said he’s “not a big proponent of high-stakes testing” and the state Algebra 1 exams put a lot of stress on students and teachers.

“The exam determines whether you pass or not. Obviously, teachers and students are not fond of it,” Milton said. “However, there is a requirement, and as a superintendent and educator, it is up to us to do the best we can.”

Students take the statewide Algebra 1 exam at school, and if they don’t pass they can take an alternative test.

But that alternative test has not been considered tough enough, according to state education officials, so starting with 9th graders this upcoming school year, the state will use scores from the well-known college entrance exams, the ACT and the College Board’s SAT. If a student couldn’t pass the exit exam at school, they would then be given the chance to take the ACT or SAT tests outside of school.

Those students would need at least a 16 on the ACT math test or a 420 on the SAT math section to meet the Algebra 1 graduation requirement – scores that are well below national averages, according to ACT and SAT data.  Students could also use a math score of at least 430 (also below the national average) on a different test – the College Board’s preliminary SAT exam – which is typically used for SAT practice.

Florida’s new scores fall significantly below what the testing giants ACT and SAT consider to be college-ready, meaning students are prepared for college freshman classes in math. The national testing giants say that students should have a 22 in ACT math (the top score is 36) and a 530 in SAT math (the top score is 800) to be considered college ready.

Officials in the Sarasota School District looked at ACT scores used in placement exams to get into math classes at a local community college, and said that Florida’s passing ACT score of 16 would likely mean a student would be placed in remedial classes, rather than regular college-level classes.

The Sarasota district overall has one of the highest passing rates in Florida on the state Algebra 1 exam.

Denise Cantalupo, director of Research, Assessment and Evaluation in the Sarasota district, said when a student misses the passing mark on the exam, “we are starting to target the child for intervention,” providing help to that student before trying to take the test again.

The state Department of Education also said in writing that programs are put into place when students can’t pass. The department provides teacher training to help struggling students, and kids can get additional instruction and tutoring or other programs.

However, the state allows allows students to pass the Algebra 1 exam though they’re not considered proficient, meaning “likely to excel in the next grade/course,” according to the Florida Department of Education. Instead, kids can pass with a “satisfactory” score that means they “may need additional support for the next grade/course.”

The state Board of Education said it had to set new passing scores to comply with updates it made to the statewide tests.

The most recent state data on the Algebra 1 exam shows that more than 200,000 students took the tests, with 61 percent of students passing in 2018. Those student scores were deemed at least “satisfactory” or higher. Only 32 percent of students were actually “proficient” or higher. That means about two-thirds of test takers didn’t meet the level of proficiency likely needed for other higher-level math. Those numbers do not include the impact of new passing scores related to ACT and SAT.

Florida’s End-of-Course Algebra 1 Exam: Students must pass to get a standard high school diploma
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At the state board of education meeting in May, member Gary Chartrand asked outright about the rigor of the new ACT and SAT scores for both Algebra 1 and Grade 10 English Language Arts –  another testing requirement for graduation.

“Are they (the passing scores) set at college ready, or are they set at below college ready?” Chartrand asked Deputy Education Commissioner Juan Copa.

Copa pointed out, for example, that the new English Language Arts passing score of at least 480 on the SAT’s reading and writing section reflects that kids will be prepared for liberal arts and writing classes as college freshmen.

Copa said nothing about the new passing scores for Algebra 1, which are not considered to be college-ready scores by the ACT or the College Board’s SAT.

The Florida Phoenix requested an interview with Copa and/or Education Commissioner Pam Stewart but that interview has not yet been granted.

The department provided written answers to some questions, but did not characterize whether the new passing scores for Algebra 1 were high or low.

When the Phoenix asked school district-level educators what they thought about an ACT math score of 16 for passing the Algebra 1 state exam, most would not provide an opinion.

The Florida Education Association has been critical of the new passing scores, fearing that even more students may fail and not get diplomas.

The nonprofit FairTest, which tracks misuse and flaws in testing issues across the country, has said that more states are dropping math and English “exit” exams required for graduation, saying they have harmed students denied diplomas.

“Florida is in a distinct minority’’ in requiring such exams for graduation, FairTest spokesman Robert Schaeffer said. He also said the that the new tests Florida will use– the ACT and SAT college entrance exams — have not been validated for use for high school exit exams.

Whether Florida will get rid of the Algebra 1 exam is unclear.

Department press secretary Audrey Walden said in writing: “State law governs these requirements and any changes to such laws would require legislative action.”

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.