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Case in Point: Setting the Bar for Algebra

A new study by the American Institutes of Research adds to an already daunting pile of evidence that what counts as proficient in one state may be several grade levels away from what students are expected to know and do in another state. The AIR suggests a more research-based method to define proficiency in a more coherent way across states.

The report was timed to give input to states entering the Race to the Top assessment competition, which could provide the cash and political backing to try new methods. Yet the American Diploma Project's similar Algebra II state consortium shows just how heavy the lifting could be for states who improve their test rigor.

The ADP assessment consortia, launched in 2005, includes 15 states that have co-developed and implemented rigorous end-of-course assessments for Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classes. The states aligned the test both to national and international benchmarking tests, and to the college-entry requirements in the participating states, according to Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., which runs the American Diploma Project.

"This work was driven entirely by outside references; we measured both what content was required and where cut scores were set," Cohen told me. "We looked at what students really needed to know."

In the end, the Algebra 2 test is comprised of only 15 percent pre-algebra concepts and 60 percent advanced true-algebra topics, the mirror opposite of algebra sections in state high school graduation exams, Achieve found. Cohen called ADP's level of difficulty "very unusual," among state assessments and even though administering the test has remained voluntary, the rigor has been daunting for states.

The percentage of students considered "prepared" or "well-prepared" in Algebra 2 according to the test has stumbled, from 14.6 percent in 2009 to 13.3 percent this year

Those low scores give a truer picture about students' math preparation, but they're a tough pill for states to swallow politically, particularly when the economy is bad and the cost to administer tests high. The number of states administering the Algebra II test has started to dwindle, from 13 states in the first two years of the test to only nine this year. Only Arkansas and Hawaii have given the test to all students each year.

While tests that Achieve calls more honest produced disappointing student results, they also have provided leverage for the participating states to boost their curriculum. Hawaii plans to use the tests in part for college placement, and New Jersey is considering making them part of the graduation requirements.

"Along with the AIR report we have a real-world example that states are trying this," Cohen told me. "States are now working on common assessments aligned to the common core standards, and they've committed within each consortia to create common cut scores. The idea is to set them so they reflect college readiness and international standards. "

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