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Calculator apps

This seems reasonable to me.

Despite concerns about test security, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams announced Thursday that he would allow some students to use calculator “apps” on state exams next school year.

Under current rules students may use only traditional calculators. But with more districts giving students iPads or other tablets, some school officials said students should be allowed to use less expensive graphing calculator “apps.” Williams conceded, just for eighth-graders, but ruled out the use of mobile phones.

“While I recognize this revised policy will not address all concerns and may still require some districts to purchase additional technology, I am hopeful this policy will enable us to provide some flexibility,” Williams said in a statement.

Graphing calculators typically cost about $100, though districts may be able to get cheaper bulk rates, said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The apps cost $15 or $20, she said.

“The problem from our end was the security risk it created,” Ratcliffe said, referring to students using tablets. “They’d have a camera. They’d have access to the internet. Initially we said no, but we had enough feedback that the commissioner said it would be worth it to try — but at the same time warning districts they really need to make sure their test security and test monitoring occurs at a high level.”

As Jason Stanford points out, there are ways to cheat with the TI graphing calculators as well. Seems to me if the concern is that great there are steps that can be taken to temporarily disable wireless data communications where the tests are being taken if one wants to do so. Personally, I think the benefit of not making the kids spend $100 on a tool they likely won’t ever need outside the classroom far outweighs that risk. This was the right call, and it should be extended to other students as well.

SBOE backs down on Algebra 2

So much for that.

Only high school students who pursue an honors plan or a diploma specializing in math and science will have to take algebra II under recommendations that the Texas State Board of Education preliminarily approved Thursday.

Despite an initial proposal that had included the advanced math course in all five new diploma plans, the 15-member board was nearly unanimous in its decision Thursday. The single no vote came from Martha Dominguez, D-El Paso.

“I think what we’ve done so far tonight accomplishes what we’ve been charged to do,” said member Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo.

The board, which has the responsibility of determining which courses school districts should offer in five separate endorsements as a part of an overhaul passed by the Legislature in May, has had two days of testimony and discussion on the topic. That included an unexpected visit from House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. Both lawmakers urged the board to reserve as much flexibility for local school districts as possible — and not to require algebra II to fulfill all of the graduation plans.

See here for the background. While this is over for now, I have always believed that the issue will continue to be debated and refined in the Legislature. There just isn’t sufficient consensus on the matter, and some of the proponents of Algebra 2 have a strong voice. Keep an eye on any candidates that make noise about it, too. I don’t know what form this debate will take in 2015, I just feel confident that it will happen. Texpatriate has more.

Are we going to require Algebra 2 or not?

Apparently, despite what happened in the last Legislature, it’s still an open question.

The State Board of Education has proposed toughening high school graduation requirements despite the Legislature’s clear intent last spring to provide more flexibility.

The board’s draft plan – up for debate and a preliminary vote this week – would require most students to pass an Algebra 2 class to graduate. The proposed rule has set off a renewed battle over the value of mandating the advanced math course.

Proponents argue Algebra 2 is tied to college and career success. Colleges often require the course for admission. But other educators and business leaders contend some students need options that may be more relevant to their interests and job plans.

State lawmakers this year unanimously passed a law to overhaul graduation standards, promoting more flexibility for students, but they left decisions about some courses to the education board.

The sponsors of House Bill 5, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, repeatedly emphasized that local school districts should get to select the classes they deem appropriate.

Another sticking point is whether students should have to take a speech class – a mandate left out of the law but included in the education board’s draft rules.

“These questions were addressed through the Legislature. They were pretty clear what their intent was,” said H.D. Chambers, superintendent of the Alief Independent School District and a leading voice favoring the bill. “It’s déjà vu.”

Chambers and others said a compromise is possible. For example, the board may end up requiring Algebra 2 only for some graduation plans.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize the SBOE had this role to play. They expect to make a decision in January after soliciting feedback from the public. School groups tend to oppose making Algebra 2 mandatory, while business groups tend to favor it. I expect the same arguments we had this spring to be made all over again. If you have a strong opinion on this, you should contact your SBOE member or sign up to testify at one of their meetings. We’ll see what happens.

Senate passes amended HB5

The Senate has passed its version of House Bill 5, which makes sweeping changes to standardized testing and curriculum requirements for high school students.

Texas high school students would have new curriculum requirements under legislation unanimously passed by the Senate on Monday — but they won’t be the ones the House envisioned when it approved its version of the legislation more than a month ago.

The Senate version of House Bill 5, which the upper chamber reached consensus on after weeks of extensive negotiations that continued through Monday afternoon, still drops the number of required state exams for graduation from 15 to five in biology, U.S. history, algebra I, and English I and II. It would still allow students to complete diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,” like humanities, science and technology, and business and industry.

But it changes the courses that students must complete to graduate under those endorsements, most significantly requiring four years of math for all of them.

The legislation now goes to conference committee, where representatives from both chambers will meet to work out their differences.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said HB 5 provided the structure for “the most rigorous, most flexible” high school graduation plan in the country. He also emphasized the legislation’s commitment to reducing high-stakes testing, which he said had taken the “fun out of teaching.”

Many Senate Democrats, along with Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, favored preserving the current “4×4” curriculum — which includes four years each in science, social studies, English and math — but adding more options for career skills and advanced math courses. Patrick pushed to keep the plan passed out of his committee, which has four years of English but drops to three years of science, math and social studies in certain endorsements to give students chances to take specialized courses.

The proposal that emerged from Senate negotiations, which Patrick called the “flex 4×4,” puts all students on track to completing four years of math and English, with algebra II as a requirement for all endorsements except the business and industry track. The advanced math course, which some education researchers say increases students’ chances at post-secondary success, would be required for automatic admission to state colleges under the top 10 percent rule and to apply for certain state scholarships.

Under the House version, students would opt into a college preparatory curriculum with the additional years of math, science and social studies. That plan has encountered criticism from groups like the Texas Association of Business, La Raza and the Education Trust, who believe it would reverse the state’s progress in improving students’ preparation for post-secondary education and result in fewer low-income and minority students heading to college.

Here’s HB5, and here’s what I wrote about the House passage of it. The main points of contention were about the algebra II requirement and whether the default endorsement was the most rigorous one or not – in other words, whether a student had to opt in or opt out. The person pushing the opt out path was Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and the Observer reports on her activities.

Under an amendment tacked on by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), students on the foundation plan must complete four years of science and four years of math with Algebra II to qualify for automatic admissions to state universities under the Top Ten Percent Rule.

That means some students who graduate with the career endorsement may not qualify for automatic admissions, depending on which math classes they choose. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who led Friday’s negotiations, introduced an amendment that would have required Algebra II for all students.

“I tell ya, I find it quite insulting,” Van de Putte said of people who insinuate that some students just can’t succeed in Algebra II, which is considered a college-ready indicator.

Van de Putte said her amendment would reduce the possibility of reverting to an old system that tended to steer minority students into career and technology fields instead of college—a concern that prompted groups like the National Council of La Raza to agitate against the bill. Van de Putte said today’s system already funnels minority students into the lower degree plan.

“I want to make sure with this amendment that we’re not failing our kids because we’re so afraid with failing ourselves,” Van de Putte said.

However, Van de Putte ultimately withdrew her amendment so lawmakers could discuss her idea in conference committee.

In a statement after the bill passed, she explained her lingering concerns with a graduation path that isn’t built for college readiness. ”I worry that some ninth-graders, especially from families without a history of higher education, won’t realize what they can achieve. I fear that choosing the minimum plan will lead to a minimum wage job,” she said.

Van de Putte also tried, unsuccessfully, to require multiple notifications to students reminding them that choosing the career endorsement may disqualify them from automatic college admissions. “If we’re going to let 15-year-olds decide what their endorsements are, we need to let them be fully informed,” Van de Putte said.

Several legislators from both parties said one notice would be enough, and Patrick raised his voice saying that he didn’t want blue collar work to be stigmatized.

Among Van de Putte’s successful amendments was an option for school districts to offer a seal of bi-literacy on qualifying students’ diplomas, and another protecting dropout recovery schools from being penalized for low test scores.

The Texas Association of Business, which continues to veer between being a force for good and a petulant bully, continues to be unhappy with the thrust of this legislation.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond criticized the Senate bill, saying the weaker requirements will “doom generations of students to a mediocre education and low-wage jobs.”

He noted that only about 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college- or career-ready.

The requirements are “meant to increase that number and put in place [higher] standards,” he said.

The bill now goes to conference committee to get the differences worked out. I doubt what emerges will be any more to Bill Hammond’s liking than the Senate version is now, but perhaps the final bill will resemble the Senate version more than the House version. It’s mostly been parent groups like TAMSA that have pushed for limits on end of course exams, and they have proven to be a fairly loud voice in this process as well. I’m really not sure what to make of all of this. I do think we test too much, but I also think algebra II should be taught, and I’m a little concerned about weakening curriculum requirements. I have a hard time sorting out all the data on this. If there’s one thing I am sure of it’s that we will revisit this subject again in 2015, and probably 2017 and 2019 and who knows how many future sessions. I don’t think this will ever be anything but a work in progress.

School stuff

Just a basic roundup of education-related stories, since there’s so much going on.

From the Trib, action in the House on testing in grade school.

Elementary and middle school students currently take a total of 17 state exams before high school. They are tested each year in grades three through eight in reading and math, plus there are additional exams in science or writing or social studies, depending on the grade. At the urging of some parents and educators, several lawmakers have proposed either eliminating testing in lower grades altogether or to dropping the number of tests to as few as 10. To avoid the risk of losing federal funding, both proposals would require a waiver under No Child Left Behind’s accountability requirements.

[Rep. Bennett] Ratliff’s House Bill 2836 would address an issue specific to younger test-takers — the amount of time they must spend sitting still to complete their state exams, which now have four-hour time limits. Ratliff said that teachers, test developers and administrators told him that “four hours is just entirely too long for a third-, fourth-, fifth-grader to sit and concentrate and do their best work.”

His bill would require exams at lower grade levels to be reworked so that most students could complete them in two hours or less. It would also remove the time limit so that struggling students could take the rest of the day to complete the test if needed.

Ratliff’s bill would also would reduce the amount of testing in lower grades to the extent possible under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, by eliminating writing exams in fourth and seventh grades and the social studies exam in eighth grade.

But for parents concerned about the effects of high-stakes testing on young children, that is not enough, said Susan Kellner, the vice president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a statewide grassroots organization.

“The issue is that No Child Left Behind requires 14 tests between the grades of three through eight, and really that limits what these bills can do,” she said.

Some lawmakers, like state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, are attempting to get around those requirements by passing laws that would require state education officials to request a waiver from the federal government.

Under House Bill 866, by Huberty, students who do well on state exams in third and fifth grades could skip exams in fourth, sixth and seventh grades. All students would be tested in math in the third and fifth grades, on reading in third, fifth and eighth grade, on writing and science in fifth and eighth grades, and on social studies in eighth grade.

Hubert’s bill is similar to one he co-authored last session with Rep. Scott Hochberg. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea now. That hasn’t stopped Bill Hammond and the TAB from digging their heels in against it for reasons that are not clear to me. But come on, there is nothing about this that contravenes the goals of rigor and accountability. I do not get where TAB is coming from on this.

Also at the Trib, the TEA wants to change the accountability ratings to letter grades.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams told senators Tuesday that the state intends to move forward with developing an A through F public school accountability rating system that would take effect in 2014.

“With the engagement of hundreds of educators and stakeholders around the state providing advice and council to TEA during the past year with the development of the accountability system, it was recommended to me and I accepted the recommendation to move in that direction,” he said.

Williams said that although he had the authority to make the transition without enacting legislation, he did not want to formally approve the change without an opportunity to answer legislators’ questions.

Proponents of the A through F system, which include House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, say that its transparency helps engage parents in their community schools by making their performance easier to understand. A similar proposal overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber as a part of House Bill 5.

“It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too,” Williams said.

I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. As long as the evaluations mean something and everyone understands what they mean, and knows what they need to do to move up, it’s fine by me.

Also in the Senate, a bit of a slap fight between Williams and Patrick.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told his fellow lawmakers Tuesday morning that he had read the newspaper editorials and comments suggesting that his graduation plan bill (SB3) lowers standards. He staunchly disagrees and wanted Education Commissioner Michael Williams to back him up. The committee chairman didn’t get the answer he sought.

“I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” said Patrick, R-Houston.

“Allow me to respectfully disagree,” Williams countered.

Williams tried to elaborate, but Patrick interrupted, saying it’s the senator who gets to ask the questions.

Eventually given a chance to speak again, Williams said that the default graduation plan for high school students today requires them to take English III and Algebra II. The current default plan also requires four years each of English, math, science and social studies. All students are put on the default plan and need parental permission to drop to an easier plan.

Under Patrick’s bill, which has passed the Senate Education Committee, the default plan (called the foundation diploma) does not require Algebra II. It requires four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students could choose to take a tougher path — called getting an endorsement — and then would have to take Algebra II.

Williams said he was particularly troubled that the proposed default plan is easier than current law. Patrick said Algebra II is losing its status as a “holy grail” course for colleges, but he offered a compromise to try to win over Williams. Patrick said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, planned to offer an amendment to SB3 that would require all students to start on the tougher “endorsement” route, with parental permission needed to drop down, similar to current law.

We saw this same fight play out in the House last week, with Rep. Mark Strama leading the fight to keep Algebra II as part of the default requirements for a diploma. He lost that fight, but it looks like it will be re-fought in the Senate. It will be very interesting to see what happens if the Senate bill keeps the Algebra II requirement. Should make for some boisterous times in the joint committee to reconcile the two bills.

And finally, here’s this week’s legislative update from Raise Your Hand Texas. They’re a good source for more of what’s going on in education legislation, so follow them in whatever fashion you prefer to keep up with this stuff.

More algebra, please

I applaud HISD for doing this.

A handful of campuses in the Houston Independent School District are experimenting with placing their best math students in algebra in seventh grade – two years before most take the class.

The earlier they pass algebra, the thinking goes, the more time they have to take advanced math courses in high school that could lead to college credit.

Over the last decade, policy-makers across the nation have pushed for algebra to become the standard for eighth grade, while some educators argue against the rush.

HISD’s move to teach algebra to an even younger set gives the students – many from poor, minority families – a head start in the course, considered a stepping stone to college and 21st century careers.

Time will tell whether the effort produces a crop of math brainiacs who take college-level calculus and statistics in high school or burnouts who ditch the subject after earning the four credits needed to graduate.

“Certainly we don’t want to push kids into something they’re not ready for,” said Monica Kendall, HISD’s manager of secondary math. “But I would like to challenge what people think kids are ready for. A lot of people think economically disadvantaged students can’t do upper-level math. My whole perspective has been, ‘Let’s find out what they can do.’ ”

Little research exists on seventh-graders taking algebra, although HISD isn’t breaking entirely new ground.

Locally, the Spring Branch and Alvin school districts are among those that have been enrolling their top seventh-graders in algebra for years.

I have no opinion on whether algebra should be the standard in eighth grade, but I can tell you from personal experience that seventh graders have been taking algebra successfully for many years. I know because I took it in the seventh grade, which was in 1978-79. My intermediate school (that’s what they call “middle school” in New York) offered algebra for its gifted & talented seventh and eighth graders; it was done as a two-year course, and enabled you to go straight to geometry in high school. By doing so, you were on track to be able to complete a year of calculus in high school, which needless to say gave you an advantage going into college.

Obviously, this isn’t for everybody; the story says that about two percent of HISD’s seventh graders are enrolled, which almost surely means there’s room for growth. It should be fairly easy to identify the kids who are bored with grade-level math and are ready for a greater challenge. It should be the goal to make algebra available in every middle school for all seventh graders who would like to take it.