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.