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Math educators on LI riled by new Common Core math rules

A fourth-grade student at Ulysses Byas Elementary School

A fourth-grade student at Ulysses Byas Elementary School in Roosevelt takes the state Common Core math test on April 13, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A state decision to lower required passing marks on a new Common Core math exam has sparked debate on Long Island and elsewhere over whether the change was statistically valid or a watering down of standards.

The revamped Regents Algebra I exam is one of four state high school tests that virtually all students must pass in order to graduate.

Many math teachers complained of apparent grade inflation last week, after the state Education Department released results of testing in math and other subjects during the 2015-16 school year. Percentages of students passing the algebra exam in Nassau and Suffolk counties jumped nearly 9 percentage points on average from the year before.

The higher passing rates followed the education department’s decision, in effect, to reduce by one or two questions the number that students needed to answer correctly in order to pass.

Department officials contended the scoring change had little impact on passing rates. Those officials added that a bigger factor appeared to be a growing familiarity among teachers and students with Common Core math instruction.

“That added comfort and experience may have resulted in greater levels of student proficiency,” said Jonathan Burman, an agency spokesman.

Many teachers remained skeptical.

“Parents don’t realize this is being inflated,” said Tom Furrer, a math teacher with nearly 30 years’ classroom experience in the Connetquot district. “They think when you get a score of 65, you actually answered 65 percent of the exam correctly. But that’s just not true.”

Margaret Roman of Plainview, a SUNY Farmingdale assistant math professor, agreed.

“They’re watering it down,” said Roman, who formerly taught at the high school level.

Arguments over the state’s scoring of the revamped Regents Algebra I exam reflected broader disagreement over national Common Core academic standards.

New York adopted the standards in 2010, along with most other states. Those guidelines called for math studies that went into greater depth, that promoted understanding of concepts rather than just rote memorization, and that encouraged solutions of “real world” problems.

Educators generally endorsed these goals. Many classroom teachers reported, however, that students struggled with the more advanced vocabulary used in word problems on the new exams.

The redesigned Common Core algebra exam was introduced in 2014, as the state phased out an older test in “integrated” algebra. Such exams are administered mostly to eighth- and ninth-graders.

Helene Kriegstein, a math administrator in the Jericho district, agreed that the Common Core’s emphasis on depth of study was laudable — “like motherhood and apple pie.”

Kriegstein added, however, that this goal became “wrapped up” in testing controversies.

“When we talk about raising our standards, we need to be very careful about lowering the bar,” said the administrator, who is immediate past president of the Nassau County Math Supervisors Association. “It leaves people sometimes with a false sense of what kids know and can do.”

Assessment critics pointed to scoring on the algebra exam as an example.

Each of the test’s 37 questions yielded between two and six “raw” points, which are credits awarded for correct answers. Those points were converted into final scores on a scale of zero to 100.

The state decided that 27 raw points were needed for a scaled score of 65 — the minimum passing requirement. That was three to four points fewer than the number required to pass tests over the previous eight years.

The net effect of the change was that students could pass the Algebra I exam with no more than 14 correct answers on a 37-item assessment.

With that change in place, passing rates among students rose to levels nearly as high as they were in 2012-13, before the state began phasing in the new test.

The department has regularly adjusted scores on other Regents exams since the 1990s. Changes on the algebra exam proved especially controversial, however, because of the assessment’s ties to Common Core.

The rationale for such adjustments is that they keep results consistent from year to year, and avoid penalizing students who might take an exam that is especially difficult.

“Regents exams are very similar from year to year, but it would be impossible for the State Education Department to create an identical test each time assessments are administered,” said Caryl Lorandini, a Carle Place teacher who serves on a state-appointed Math Content Advisory Board. “That’s why scores are scaled. It’s in the best interest of students.”

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