Monday, July 7, 2014

82% Fail Algebra 1 Final

Saw this video -- where in Montgomery County, Maryland, "which is considered a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C." -- 82% of students failed their Algebra I final.  And the video asks why - to me the video felt like they were searching for blame - and there is plenty of it to go around.

Lets start with a system of standardized testing that pushes too far too fast.   If you do not take time for students to really understand the concepts & interconnections and have recursive practice students simply memorize to pass a unit test, then, they are doomed on any really understanding.  This lack of understanding in turn dooms them on a final.

Teachers feel pressure to show what is on the standardized tests, but if a student is not ready - and they need more practice on "lesser" material - then that must happen.  Yet the CCSS are demanding and there is a pressure there (which I think we teachers need to balance -- College Readiness is number one).

Also - the amount of material is a question.  See the review final from there website.  The amount of material covered is impressive, but are the students getting a deeper understanding - is it possible to push a very young adult through the amount of material on the practice final and have them truly understand?  I always remind myself the students will always do the minimum - so they memorized during the semester, the minimum, and then are ill-prepared for the final (and college math - again somewhere around 30-40% are not college ready).

And I am careful not to criticize the teachers there - perhaps they have a K-12 math program where this is what Algebra 1 learns, but at my school - nearly half of their final is Algebra II.   The challenge is not to look at any one course like Algebra I and ask what they need, but to look at the HS graduate with 3 years of math and ask if they have the skills.  If you don't get deep into parabolas in Algebra I then save them for Algebra II, and spend time doing more projects, recursive practice, etc.  It does mean trading away something in Algebra II - perhaps come conics, or some imaginary number graphing - that can go to PreCalc.  I know we need to trade there too then, but that is our job to decide what is most important for the time we have - and if we make the curriculum manageable then the fail rate will fall.

Finally I don't blame the students - I believe that finals always fall one letter grade.  And unless 82% of the students got a D or F mark for the 4th quarter - then there is something awry.  Systems for grading need to be designed that ensure success - but if that system is impossible when overloaded with topics.  For the record I only test what we have mastered on a final, my final changes based on the topics covered each year.  (FYI - I have about 12% failure rate)

In the end - teachers need to take control.  Set a curriculum that prepares the students for two places in their lives.  Point 1 -- being college ready, and point 2 -- having the problem solving skills & basic math to be successful at 27 years of age.  I often joke that I work for the students, the 27 year old student.  And at 27 they want to be skilled at problem solving, and do not want to have flunked out of college because of math (skills or because of fear).

If we remember our accountability is not to a predetermined curriculum plan, or to politicians or to administrators - not really even to parents  - but to students (it's their life!), then we are doing our job.  Then we will be preparing the 27 year old for their challenges.