Only 37 percent of FL 8th graders passed a crucial statewide math exam

Low-scoring students can lose out on higher-level math courses in high school

By: - August 3, 2021 7:00 am

Math formulas on chalkboard. Credit: Getty Images.

A solid grasp of exponents, functions, properties of geometric shapes and other skills can help set up 8th graders for success in higher-level math, but in 2021, only 37 percent of 8th graders tested in Florida passed the statewide math exam.

Those dismal math results — the lowest since at least 2015 — mean 8th graders will likely face hurdles in high school, with the 2021-22 school year approaching and the COVID-19 pandemic continuing.

The 8th grade passing rate of 37 percent plummeted compared to 2019, when 46 percent of 8th graders passed the exam with a score of 3, 4 and 5. (Florida didn’t administer the exam in 2020 because of the pandemic.)

Even worse, Florida’s passing rate in 8th grade doesn’t mean kids are proficient in math.

Only scores of 4 and 5 —  not a 3 — show students are proficient or higher, according to the state Department of Education. A 3 is “satisfactory,” but a student “may need additional support for the next grade/course.”

Overall, 3rd through 8th graders showed a drop in performance on the 2021 math exams, but 8th graders showed the lowest performance of all.

Learning disrupted in pandemic

“The larger losses in mathematics scores are seen not only in Florida, but nationally,” said Joe McNaughton, chief academic officer with the Polk County school district in Central Florida, in a written statement to the Phoenix.

“One factor is mathematics standards build on one another from year to year. With an entire quarter disrupted by the quick switch to remote learning in the spring of 2020, students may not have all of the prerequisite skills needed for the next course.”

Dylan Tedders is assistant superintendent of administrative services for the Okeechobee County school district, close to Central Florida. He says that learning at home due to the pandemic could have contributed to the lower math scores.

In Florida, all students had to learn at home at some point during the pandemic. In about March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, all schools were closed and the Florida education system had to quickly shift to virtual learning.

Then when Florida schools opened up again in fall 2020, some families opted for students to learn at home through virtual learning platforms to protect their children from COVID-19. Throughout the year, some students or teachers who were in brick-and-mortar schools still had to quarantine due to possible  COVID exposure.

“We’re not using that as an excuse, but we know it’s there, that fact that they weren’t in front of a teacher, face-to-face, every day, or the majority of the day has been a factor,” Tedders told the Phoenix. “We’re still deciphering through that.”

Tedders thinks it’s harder to replicate in-classroom practice in math at home than in other subjects such as English.

“I mean if you’re at home, you can read a book, you know, you can read articles, you can probably respond to prompts online,” Tedders told the Phoenix. “But that math, if you’re repeating problems and you’re repeatedly doing it the wrong way, and you don’t have that immediate feedback to do it the right way, it’s just harder to build those skills.”

How to regroup and catch up

Tedders said that the Okeechobee school district will be looking at test results further to help identify which students need additional help and what intervention methods will best get kids back on track.

“We’ll have after school programs. We’ll have all kinds of supports in place during the day if they need it,” Tedders said. “We’re going to look to align our resources to get those students as much of a chance as possible.”

Cheryl McDaniel, assistant superintendent for the Jackson County school district in the Panhandle, said many factors during the pandemic could have hurt the particularly low math scores, when schools across Florida shut down in response to the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

McDaniel said the sudden shift to virtual learning and the lack of direct teacher-to-student interactions created a significant loss of instruction time. Some teachers and students are still trying to rebound.

She said that the initial school closure created gaps, and students came into the 2020-21 school year with those gaps.

“It’s just going to take time to close that gap. Time and extra instruction. That’s really the only way to do it,” she told the Phoenix.

Grade school and high school exams

Florida students are required to take the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA)  mathematics exam from 3rd through 8th grades.

But eighth graders in recent years have struggled with math scores each year, with passing rates consistently below 50 percent.

The lowest passing rate, in 2021,  was 37 percent. That followed 46 percent in 2019; 45 percent in 2018, 46 percent in 2017, 48 percent in 2016 and 45 percent in 2015.

The statewide high school math exams, called end-of-course exams, are Algebra 1 and Geometry. Those state exams can include middle school students who have a solid grasp of mathematics.

Of middle schoolers who took the Algebra 1 end of course exam in 2021, 78 percent of students received a 3 or higher, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. For Geometry, the figure was 89 percent in 2021.

Those high-achieving middle schoolers taking Algebra 1 and Geometry exams do help boost the results of the grade-school math exams.

The lower achieving students already in high school still have to take the Algebra 1 and Geometry exams and the test results don’t look good.

According to a summary from the Department of Education, only 30 percent of high schoolers received a 3 or higher on the 2021 Algebra end-of-course exam, and 40 percent of high schoolers received a 3 or higher on the geometry exam in 2021.

McDaniel of Jackson County schools, said that struggling math students can extend Algebra 1 courses over two school years.

“Instead of just putting them into regular Algebra, we have Algebra 1A and an Algebra 1B, so it becomes a two-year course. So, they have two years to learn the math standards they need to learn to pass the Algebra EOC (end-of-course exam),” she said.

McDaniel also noted that there will be an additional class available in district high schools so that students can focus on particular standards that they may have missed during the various disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.