Math troubles get put to test

The tests were too long.

Calculators weren’t allowed.

The students weren’t given a list of the math formulas needed to answer exam questions.

Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes has been fielding a lot of those complaints about end-of-semester math exams that were failed by most middle school and high school students in January.

“I think there’s been too much of an impression that 90 percent of our students are failing in math, and that’s not the case at all,” Rulffes said.

He noted that other measures of student performance in math, such as standardized tests, put Clark County students at or near the national average.

But behind the perfect storm of testing factors that produced such alarming results on exams intended to measure student mastery of higher math skills are the actual grades earned by students.

At the end of the first semester, about half the students enrolled in high school Algebra 1 had received a D or an F.

Of the 19,777 students taking the required course, just 5.9 percent got A’s.

The largest group of students, 34.3 percent, were concentrated at the bottom of the grading scale, with first-semester grades of F.

Honors Algebra 1 students fared better. Of the 2,887 students enrolled in those classes, 45.8 percent got grades of A or B. One in four students got D’s or F’s.

As the grades indicate, mathematics is a subject that every large school district struggles with and Clark County is no exception, Rulffes said.

One of the reasons for creating the math exams last year was concern over the grades earned by students in higher math classes, Rulffes said.

As a superintendent, he wanted to know if students were learning the skills mandated by district standards.

An expert committee formed to examine Clark County’s math struggles met for the first time last week.

Rulffes said the group has been charged with examining the math program from all sides, as well as exploring factors that led to such dismal student performance on end-of-semester exams which were given for the first time this year.

In high school Algebra 1, 90.5 percent of students failed the exam.

In geometry, 87.8 percent of students failed the exam.

In Algebra 2, 86.6 percent of students failed the exam.

Rulffes said the committee will look at whether the exams accurately reflect the course requirements, a complaint that’s been raised by teachers and principals.

The group also will look at whether the tests were given correctly.

In the wake of the poor results, it became clear that tests were often modified or not given at all in some district schools.

Bill Hanlon, who oversees the state-funded Regional Professional Development Center, coordinated the creation of the tests and sits on the newly formed committee.

The group has 23 members, including teachers, administrators, UNLV Professor of Mathematics Education William Speer and National Council for Supervisors of Mathematics President Tim Kanold.

“We had a good first meeting,” Hanlon said. “It was very positive. One of the first things we’re going to take a look at is student placement.”

In high school, algebra is now the lowest level of math class offered, Hanlon said.

The idea of having all eighth-graders complete Algebra 1, an initiative launched by former Superintendent Carlos Garcia, also will be re-examined.

“I think that every student should have access to algebra in eighth grade,” Rulffes said. “But I’m not sure that every student should have to complete algebra in eighth grade. We’ve seen the outcome of that. Some of our students are having difficulty.”

Eighth-graders in Algebra 1 also took the first-semester exams. Districtwide, 54.1 percent of those in Algebra 1 classes failed the test.

The first-semester grades for eighth-graders in Algebra 1 were better than the test results:

About one of every two eighth-graders received an A or a B. Just 22.9 percent of students got D’s or F’s.

In eighth grade, students have more options in math. Many schools offer pre-algebra classes to students who might not have the skills for Algebra 1.

School Board President Mary Beth Scow sees the exams as a bold move.

Yes, it has resulted in a community uproar and intense media scrutiny, but it’s part of raising the bar in the math program, Scow said.

“To me it’s worth having done this,” Scow said. “We are going to make our students strong in mathematics, because they have to have that for the future.”

Schools are already gearing up to give second-semester exams, and Rulffes said changes have been made in response to concerns raised after the first round of testing.

The exams are shorter. Ten questions have been removed; the tests now have 40 problems.

Eighth-graders are being given more time to take the test.

And math department leaders at each high school have been told that the exams matter.

“I’m confident that there is now a clear understanding about the expectation of the tests,” Rulffes said. “I’d personally be very disappointed if someone says that they didn’t understand the importance of the tests.”

Hanlon said a shortened test doesn’t mean an easier test.

For instance, if the Algebra 1 exam had three questions about one concept, one of those questions was taken off.

“That doesn’t make it an easier test,” Hanlon said.

As the committee commences its work, individual schools are reworking what they’re doing so students have a greater chance of math success in the future.

At Desert Pines High School, Principal Tim Stephens is already making changes for next year’s freshmen.

First, they’ll be getting a double dose of math. In addition to taking algebra, every freshman will be required to take a fundamentals in math class.

Stephens eliminated physical education and careers courses for freshmen to free up four teacher positions to make that happen.

The physical education requirements will be fulfilled during the sophomore and junior years instead.

Freshmen also will be required to take an additional half-credit of English.

“We have to consider our mission,” Stephens said. “Our mission is academics.”

Stephens is also tackling the failure problem through the class schedule.

Next year, if students fail the first semester of Algebra 1, they won’t move on to the second semester.

Instead, Stephens said, they’ll retake the first-semester materials.

Math is a sequential subject, he said. Students who haven’t learned the required concepts in the first semester won’t be able to learn the second-semester skills.

It poses a mammoth challenge in scheduling and is inconvenient for staff, but Stephens said Desert Pines is focusing on student achievement.

“Sometimes, things are uncomfortable,” Stephens said. “But our goal is to do what’s best for students.”

Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at lbach or 702-383-0287.

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