Many Florida districts substantially increase numbers of middle school students passing the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam

Many Florida districts had substantial increases over last year in the number of 7th and 8th graders passing the spring administration of the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam.

With a statewide increase of 16% in the number of middle school students who passed the exam, it is not surprising that many individual districts had increases.

Last week, I posted a plot that showed for each district the 7th graders who passed the Algebra 1 EOC as a percentage of all 7th graders enrolled in the district, and the corresponding percentage for 8th graders.  The plot ranked the districts by the sum of those two percentages – what I call here the Middle School Algebra 1 Index.

The plot shown below shows how much each district’s index increased (or didn’t) this year over last year.  Blue bars indicate increases and the red bars give decreases.

It is not surprising that rural districts – with their small numbers of students – have large year-to-year fluctuations in the numbers of students who pass the Algebra 1 exam (or any exam).  That includes Baker, Bradford, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Okeechobee, Sumter, Taylor, Union, Wakulla and Washington Counties.

But some of the improvements from larger districts were quite impressive.  Collier rose to the top of the state with a 14 point increase.  Another way of looking at Collier’s improvement:  The number of 8th graders passing the Algebra 1 exam in Collier County increased by 57% over last year.

Not all districts increased the numbers of middle school students passing the exam quite so much – or even at all.  And that is not necessarily bad.  Orange County’s index increased only five points, but it was enough to raise them to the state’s number one ranking according to this index.  Seminole County’s index actually decreased a little bit – but they stayed in the top group of districts.  Orange, Seminole, Collier, Hillsborough and Brevard Counties lead the state with about 45% of students passing the Algebra 1 EOC in middle school.

There is evidence from research that the 45% number that Florida’s leading school districts have achieved might be what’s best for students – and that going higher might not be.  A study by CALDER Center researchers of a push by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) school district in 2002-2003 to enroll nearly all 8th graders in Algebra 1 demonstrated that many students were actually harmed by the initiative.  The researchers concluded that “Our evidence also suggests that the optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking, in a population equivalent to that in CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools], is at or below the observed baseline rate around 50%.”

It is likely that in many Florida school districts more middle school students should be taking Algebra 1.  But it’s possible that the state’s leading districts – including a few of the state’s largest – are now in the sweet spot for middle school algebra.  It’s a welcome development for a state that has traditionally been weak in science and math.


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Good riddance to Florida’s Algebra 2 end-of-course exam

Among numerous other things, the enormous education policy bill signed by Governor Scott yesterday (HB 7069) ended the life of Florida’s Algebra 2 end-of-course exam.

Good riddance.

The well-informed reader might be wondering why I would say that.  After all, the news on this spring’s administration of the Algebra 2 exam was good.  The number of students passing the test statewide this spring was 10% higher (about 5,000 students) than it was last spring.

But there was a problem.  During the 2016-17 school year, 10% fewer students took Algebra 2 in Florida’s public schools than in 2015-16.  Algebra 2 is essentially mandatory for any student who wants to attend a four-year college.  It is also the gateway high school math course to associate-level STEM degrees.  So a decline in Algebra 2 enrollment is a very bad thing.

Why the enrollment decline?  Algebra 2 is not required for graduation, but the passing rate on the EOC counted toward the school grade.  So high school principals were incentivized to take marginal students out of Algebra 2 and put them in other math courses.  I heard of one high school in a different part of the state where an entire classroom full of IB students was placed in Liberal Arts Math 2 instead of Algebra 2 because of the risk that these IB students might lower the school’s Algebra 2 EOC passing rate and therefore hurt the school’s grade.

With the departure of the Algebra 2 EOC to wherever deceased standardized exams go, the incentive for principals to do crazy things like that disappeared.  If principals or school boards want accountability in their Algebra 2 classes, they can have those students take Florida’s PERT (Postsecondary Education Readiness Test), which has real-world consequences for the state’s community college-bound students.



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Orange County #1 in Florida for middle school Algebra 1

Riding a wave of high-achieving 7th graders, mega-district Orange County passed traditional math and science powerhouse Seminole to become Florida’s best district for middle school performance on the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam (EOC) this spring, according to an analysis of test results released by the FLDOE last week.

The chart below shows a measure of middle school Algebra 1 success for each district.  The blue part of the each bar shows percentage of a district’s 7th graders who passed the Algebra 1 EOC this spring.  For example, 18.9% of Orange County’s 7th graders passed the Algebra 1 EOC.  The red part of each bar shows the corresponding percentage for 8th graders.  In Orange County, 26.8% of 8th graders passed the exam.  In total, the bar shows the sum of those two percentages.

By this measure, Orange County at 45.7% has a narrow lead over four other districts – mega-district Hillsborough County (45.3%), Seminole County (45.1%), Collier County (45.1%) and the state’s other traditional math and science powerhouse, Brevard County (44.5%).

The five leading counties have different strategies for achieving their high levels of success in middle school Algebra 1.  While Orange County is building its success with extraordinary results in 7th grade, Collier has almost no 7th graders taking Algebra 1.  Instead, nearly all of Collier’s Algebra 1 exam passers were in 8th grade.  Hillsborough also has a large number of 8th grade exam passers.  Seminole and Brevard Counties stuck to their traditional formula of having about four times as many 8th graders taking Algebra 1 as 7th graders.

Overall, 16% more Florida middle and high school students passed the Algebra 1 EOC this spring than passed it last spring.  Most of that growth occurred in 8th and 9th grades.

Collier’s score jumped 14.8 percentage points from last year.  Orange increased by 5.2 points.  Brevard, Hillsborough and Seminole had little or no growth.

The data for this analysis came from the FLDOE web site.


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Numbers of Florida students passing end-of-course exams for Algebra 1 and 2 increase, while number passing Geometry EOC declines

The numbers of Florida students passing the state’s end-of-course exams in Algebra 1 and 2 this spring were sharply higher than last spring while the number of students passing the Geometry EOC declined.

The number of students passing the Algebra 1 EOC this spring rose by 16% over last spring.  Students in 8th and 9th grades had the greatest increases.


The number of students earning passing scores on the Algebra 2 EOC was 10% higher this spring than last spring.  Ninth and tenth graders had the largest improvements.


Meanwhile, the number of students passing the Geometry EOC this spring was 6% lower than last spring.  The largest drop occurred among 9th graders.


The Florida Department of Education reported that on the Geometry exam the passing rate – the students who earned a passing score as a percentage of the number taking the exam – was 2% higher this spring than last spring.  However, 11% fewer students took the Geometry exam this spring than last spring so that even with the slightly higher passing rate the number of students passing the exam fell.

Students must pass the Algebra 1 EOC to earn a standard high school diploma in Florida.  That is not the case for the Geometry EOC; however, the exam counts as 30% of the final course grade.  Algebra 2 is not a graduation requirement; however, if a student takes the course the EOC counts as 30% of the final course grade.  (Statute language here)

If Governor Scott signs HB 7069 into law, the Algebra 2 EOC will be terminated.

All of the exam data here were obtained from the FLDOE’s Assessments Results page.

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Bay County’s Rutherford and Bay High Schools continue rapid physics course growth

This coming fall, Bay County’s Rutherford High School will have four times as many physics students as it did two years ago.

Meanwhile, Bay High School has added a second physics teacher to its staff to handle growth in its physics courses.  Last year, more half of all the district’s physics students attended Bay High School, and the school had more physics students than the entire district had the year before.

Rutherford’s physics teacher and the school’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Rachel Morris, will be teaching a second year physics course for IB students in addition to two sections of AP Physics 1.  The three physics sections will have a total enrollment of more than 50, compared to the 14 students who took physics at Rutherford in 2015-16.

Bay High School’s physics enrollment exploded to 126 in 2016-17.  To handle the enrollment, Bay has hired one of its own graduates, Sean O’Donnell.  A graduate of UCF, Sean will be joining Nancy Browne at BHS in the fall.

Overall, the Bay District high school physics enrollment grew from 100 in 2015-16 to 235 in 2016-17.


Physics teachers from Rutherford and Bay High Schools working on a magnetic field laboratory on Wednesday evening.  From left, Rutherford’s Rachel Morris, Bay’s Nancy Browne, and Bay’s Sean O’Donnell




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“Can’t we do this as well online?”: Why it matters what policy-makers believe about how students learn


If you are member of the Florida Board of Governors and you think the above picture is what my physics class looks like, you might be wondering why we can’t do as good a job (or better) at a smaller cost to students and taxpayers by offering the same course online.  The online course wouldn’t require a big, fancy, expensive lecture hall.  And it wouldn’t require me – you could just find the best recorded lectures on the market and have the students watch the slick recordings instead of having to sit through miserable hours of me droning on and on.  And then you could save my salary as well.

If that’s what my physics course looked like, you’d be right.  In fact, there is research from MIT researchers to back that up:  An MIT online mechanics course gave slightly better student learning gains than those typical for traditional lecture courses.

But that’s not what my physics class looks like.  Instead, my class (seen below) is a beehive of activity as students do experiments or work through problems together.  They are not always enjoying themselves.  They sometimes (or maybe often) pine for the simplicity of the traditional lecture class, and many say I’m “not teaching”.

And maybe I’m not teaching.  But the students are learning a helluva lot better – student learning gains are about twice as large in my class and in other “interactive engagement classes” as they are in traditional lecture classes.  And we blow out the MIT online course as well, as the MIT researchers were only too happy to admit.


But don’t education policy-makers know enough about how students learn to know that interactive learning environments like my studio physics class beat traditional lecture classes and their more modern online-recorded-lecture successors?  And that it is interactive engagement that gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance of learning physics (or related subjects) with the deep understanding necessary to make a career in a STEM field?

In short:  No.

A few years ago, I had a meeting with two people at the top of the education policy-making pyramid who had been educators themselves for decades.  I was flabbergasted when they asked me to record my lectures for broadcast to rural high schools in what some would call a “course access” program.  After a few moments’ pause that I used to recover my poise, I explained (alright, I “lectured”) to the two educational leaders about how students learn physics best, and how I hadn’t given a real lecture in years (at least more than the five-minute “mini-lectures” we sometimes use to open our three-hour studio physics classes).

If two experienced professionals and leaders didn’t know any better than that, why would we expect that the volunteer members of the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors would know better?  And legislators?  I know of one former legislator who is an expert.  That’s it.

A member of the Board of Governors, State Board of Education or Legislature who believes that our science classrooms look like the one at the top of this post would probably not support state-of-the-art interactive engagement teaching facilities – either through renovation or new construction.  And that’s something we really need to address.

I’m not allowed to invite legislators to visit our studio physics classes.  But I have arranged for visits by several journalists, one school board chair, and two FSU Presidents.  And I’m going to keep trying to get the word out about what an effective science learning environment looks like.  After all, what our state’s leaders don’t know can hurt our students by denying them the best opportunities to access STEM careers.


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Florida’s Middle Grades Study of how to improve math achievement should add Indiana, Tennessee and Texas

On Friday, Governor Scott signed HB 293, a bill that authorizes a $50,000 study of states that perform at a relatively high level in middle school math and reading, as measured by the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In math, the states named as models are Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Washington.

The FLDOE should add Indiana, Tennessee and Texas to the math study.

The graph below shows why.  It graphs the percentage of students earning “proficient” or above on 2015 NAEP 8th grade math exam against the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in 2013-14.  The latter parameter is a rough measure of economic health of a state’s K-12 students.

Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Washington (shown as blue diamonds) are all affluent states.  Florida (the green triangle) is not.

The three states shown as red squares (left to right – Indiana, Tennessee and Texas) should be added to the study.  They do better than Florida in middle school math while having socioeconomic situations much closer to that in Florida.


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