“The Algebra Miracle” chronicles the story of the Algebra program at a high-poverty public high school from 1993-2011. This is the fourth in a series of posts outlining the steps that resulted in remarkable levels of student academic achievement. Both Step 1 and Step 2 are recounted in detail in Chapter 1 (A New Approach to Algebra 1. Step 3 is found in Chapter 2 (Making Adjustments). This topic is discussed in Chapter 3 (Coping with State Standardized Testing) and Chapter 5 (Achieving the State Mandated Goal).
While there were many factors involved in the implementation the new Algebra 1 program at Stuart High School, the only true measure of the program’s success was its impact on student academic achievement. Regardless of the positive outcomes that might occur in terms of classroom discipline, student and teacher satisfaction or administrative ease, without improving the performance of the individuals taking the Algebra 1 class the project was doomed to failure. And the best method for determining that this progress was being obtained involved constantly evaluating and reevaluating all of available data.
More than just numbers
Great care must be taken when evaluating student success based on test scores. Mark Twain may have said it best—“There are lies, damn lies and statistics”. Mr. Twain was accurately assessing an inherent problem with any set of data—it can be either manipulated or misinterpreted to meet virtually any goal or expectation. The early years of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams served as an excellent example of this problem. During the first three years of testing the pass rates for the Algebra 1 students at Stuart HS were 32%, 48% and 54%. While the initial score of 32% could indicate reason for panic and the yearly increases could foster a sense of improvement, careful analysis revealed that both of those assumptions were incorrect.
When the 32% pass rate was announced after the first year of testing the concerns in the building were palpable. The state had established a 70% benchmark for a school to be accredited. Though that requirement was not to go into effect for several years, having two out of every three students fail was at best unnerving. Fortunately, it was decided not to look at this one set of scores in a statistical vacuum. The 70% was a long-term goal but irrelevant in the context of how the students at SHS were performing. What was important was how the school’s numbers compared to other schools in the district and the state. In the affluent Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) district, Stuart was an anomaly. It’s 52% free or reduced lunch rate and ELL population dwarfed every one of the other twenty-one student bodies in the system. These factors implied that simply avoiding the lowest pass rates in the district would be a challenge. By October of the following year research revealed that was not the case. The 32% pass rate placed Stuart HS at 17th— better than five other schools. That number was also higher than the overall state average, another good sign. Consequently what had been initially a discouraging statistic had now become a hopeful one.
The following year there was a significant numerical improvement with nearly half (48%) passing the exam. While this number made the ultimate objective of 70% more feasible, it did not reflect a major gain. Once again the school’s results were better than five other in the district. When examining all of the data, the 16% gain could likely be attributed more to better test taking skills than improved instruction.
A misleading indicator
The third year of testing brought a pass rate of 54%. The immediate response was one of great excitement. The 50% mark had been passed; in three years the scores had risen by 22% making the 70% barrier appear far less daunting. But while it would be easy to sell this set of data as yet another step in the right direction, it was not. The 54% ranked next to last in the district; if academic achievement was the ultimate goal, our approach to Algebra 1 was not having the impact desired. While one year was not sufficient to establish a trend, the three years were enough to cause alarm.
Establishing the number one priority
Moving students to an Algebra 1 part 1 status in March was extremely popular. The students liked it because they were given a second chance after a poor three-quarters of the year. Many also enjoyed not having the negative connotation of spending the entire year labeled as a “Part 1” student. The teachers also found the approach beneficial. Classroom discipline was improved with few students hopelessly failing as early as February or March. The administrative staff liked the fact that there were no schedule disruptions. But for all of these positive attributes, the bottom line was obvious—student achievement was not being appropriately advanced. And at a school with many at-risk individuals, this situation was unacceptable.
Consequently, after the analysis of year three, a series of meetings ensued. The math teachers poured over all of the available data to determine precisely where the program was failing to meet the needs of the students. Their findings were shared with the administrative staff and counselors. It was apparent that weaker students were benefiting from the exposure to a regular Algebra 1 class but in the second year they were still struggling with the subject. The solution formulated was a more radical approach. Instead of changing student status on paper in March, separate Algebra 1 and Part 1 classes would be reestablished at the start of the second semester. This change gave students two full semesters of Part 1 curriculum and hopefully a better preparation for the following year. It was readily apparent that this new plan would wreak havoc for the adults in the building. Of course this could be avoided. A progression from 32% to 48% to 54% could be packaged as success and this pain avoided. But to reach the ultimate goal of student achievement sacrifice was required.
Tracking the progress
This change would need time to have an impact. The next year there was modest improvement. The pass rate of 72% exceeded the state’s barrier and was better than four other district schools—a modest gain. However in the first year of testing with the new approach fully in place the effect became evident. The Algebra 1 students at Stuart were passing at 86% and ranked eighth out of 23 in the district. The list of schools with lower scores now included many of the wealthiest in the system. In the next four years the results placed the Stuart High School Algebra 1 program twelfth, seventh, first and third in the county.
The chaos, confusion and additional work occurring every January became well worth the effort. The data told the whole story—the most important job of an educator and an academic program was being accomplished.
Next: Step 5 – Building a departmental mind-set that breeds success