Would more students learn math better if Florida dropped the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam?

Algebra 2 has traditionally been the “college-ready” high school math course in Florida and elsewhere.  It is the gateway high school math course to associate degree-level STEM careers – which pay much better than many bachelors’ degrees.  However, the state’s draconian Algebra 2 end-of-course exam – with a pass rate of only 40% last spring – may be responsible for keeping out of the course some students who have potential for STEM careers but whose math skills are perceived by teachers and counselors to be marginal.

A student’s performance on the Algebra 2 EOC impacts evaluations of the student’s teacher, school and district.  A failing score on the exam hurts all three.  While I cannot document cases in which mathematically marginal students were discouraged from registering for Algebra 2 after Geometry because of the possibility of EOC failure, there were sixteen districts in which fewer than 15% of high school students were taking Algebra 2 in the Spring 2016 semester.  If all students took Algebra 2 on their way through high school, that number would be about 25%.

Florida had a test to judge the college readiness of students long before the Algebra 2 EOC came along.  That test, which is still used for placement in Florida’s State College System, is the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT).  According to the FLDOE web site, “The P.E.R.T. is aligned with the Postsecondary Readiness Competencies identified by Florida faculty as necessary for success in entry-level college credit coursework.”  With a high enough score on PERT, a student can be confident in her or his readiness for College Algebra, the first college credit-earning math course in two- and four-year STEM tracks.

In a state which brags about its articulation arrangements among universities, two-year colleges and high schools, it is somewhat puzzling that these two parallel tests – PERT and the Algebra 2 EOC – are maintained (and paid for).  If the traditional role of Algebra 2 has been to prepare students for college, why not just use PERT to judge a student’s performance in that class and stop paying for the development and deployment of the Algebra 2 EOC?

PERT’s output has very practical consequences.  Students in the highest scoring range are told they are ready for College Algebra (course number MAC 1105).  The next group is said to be ready for “Intermediate Algebra” (course number MAT 1033).  The bottom two groups are labeled “Higher Level Developmental Education” and “Lower Level Developmental Education”.

In contrast, the Algebra 2 EOC scores (1 to 5) have no clear practical consequences for the students who take it.  And in a way, that’s good – because 60% of the students who take it fail with a score of 1 or 2.  But such a score results in punishment for the teacher, school and district.  And any system which punishes teachers, schools and districts for the performance of the majority of their students bears reexamination, at least.

The Algebra 2 EOC is built around the Florida Standards, which are in turn – at least at the Algebra 2 level – nearly identical to the Common Core.  In contrast, PERT is built around math skills that Florida’s own postsecondary math faculty believe are important for success in college.  These two frameworks are probably not identical, but I’m willing to bet that they are close.  After all, it’s math, not history.  Furthermore, if I had to choose one framework over the other, I’d pick the framework set by the faculty members who are going to be the next to deal with the students who take the test.

Terminating the Algebra 2 EOC would probably result in cost savings.  But more importantly, it might result in more students learning more math and being better prepared for robust careers in STEM fields.  That’s reason enough to take a careful look at such an idea.

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