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NJ's New Algebra and Biology Finals Get Put to Early Test

Students perform poorly on pilot tests, and state board worries what will happen when new end-of-course exams really count.

It may be the wave of the future for New Jersey’s testing, but the state’s first foray into end-of-course exams in high schools is reaping some sobering results.

With the state planning to phase in course-specific tests over the next several years, barely half of more than 100,000 students passed a pilot biology exam given last year, and less than a third were deemed proficient in a separate Algebra 1 exam.

Neither pilot test counted for the students or their schools, but the biology test is slated to become a requirement for graduation starting with next year’s freshmen. The Algebra 1 test will ultimately be required as well, officials said.

Explaining the Results

Presenting the results to the state Board of Education yesterday, state officials said they are confident that the passing rates will improve as the stakes for students and schools are explained, further training is launched for teachers and the necessary instruction is put in place.

“I have confidence that a lot of this is about understanding expectations,” said Sandra Alberti, director of math and science education for the state education department.

Still, she and others said the results still show the gaps that exist, especially between poor and wealthy districts, and also in how the classes are taught.

On the biology test, just a quarter of the students in the poorest districts were proficient, compared with more than 80 percent in the wealthiest.

The algebra test -- developed by a consortium of states -- is using a different grading system for now, but 75 percent of students in the poorest districts were deemed “below basic,” while that number was 11 percent in the richest districts.

Achievement Gaps

But even beyond the achievement gaps, Alberti said the algebra results also exposed the inconsistency of what is taught to different students in middle and high school math classes, even under the same name.

She said in one sample district, students taking algebra in eighth grade did considerably better than those who were taking it in 10th grade, sometimes for the second time. She described classes in the latter group where students are not taught different ways to solve problems and spend as much time in class finishing homework as going over it.

“We have this thing called Algebra I that exists in very different forms, even within the same school,” she said.

The new end-of-course exams, first pursued under former Gov. Jon Corzine by his commissioner, Lucille Davy, have grown increasingly common in many states as a way to raise the rigor of the specific skills and knowledge required for college and careers.

General Knowledge

Depending on the district, most New Jersey students are required to take algebra or biology, but the state’s current high school test is more a general knowledge exam of math and language arts, covering algebra, geometry and trigonometry. There is currently no state science test for high schools beyond the new biology exam.

Under Davy, the department set forward a plan to add geometry and Algebra II exams as well, in addition to at least one more laboratory science test.

But with any new high-stakes test comes a host of questions about what happens if a student fails the exam. Does he or she get special remediation, and take the test again or an alternative test? What happens if he or she passed the class and failed the test?

State officials said these questions would start to be addressed in the coming year as the exams are put in place. The state would also have time to adjust the final score that is required to pass both tests. The state board yesterday set an interim “cut score” for the biology test, but said it would revisit it after seeing the scores on the May test.

“With a new test, once you have the test that has consequences, then you set the standard,” Alberti said. “It’s just thought to be a different mindset.”

Questions About the Curriculum

Still, she said if students are passing their biology classes and not the state’s test, questions need to be asked about the curriculum. The biology test also includes so-called performance assessments, asking students to work their way through a series of questions and tasks on paper, and not just recall facts.

“This is what we feel is the core of biology,” she said. “If you pass the course and not the assessment, then you need to look at the expectations in the course.”

But some board members worried if these first results portend high failure rates when the tests are for real, potentially blocking thousands of students from graduating.

The state this spring denied diplomas to nearly 3,000 students who failed the current high school exam, as well as a revamped alternative exam, touching off a storm of protest and a last-minute appeals process.

“None of us want to relive that,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president.

“We could be talking 10,000-20,000 students who fail a high-stakes high school exam,” he said. “What are we going to do? We need some clear answers.”

Learning from this spring’s experience, state officials said they are currently developing a multifaceted plan that addresses students falling short on these new tests, as well as those taking the existing high school test, and would present it to the board next month.

Still, assistant education commissioner Willa Spicer said there are tough consequences to requiring students to prove they are ready to graduate.

‘We mean to be clear that to get a high school diploma, certain things are required,” Spicer said. “This won’t be done without some pain.”

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