Texas students boost passing rate in algebra; State level at 60%; English test scores dive amid math push

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas students are continuing to recover from their traditional weakness in algebra, according to a new set of test scores released Friday.

The statewide passing rate jumped from 51 to 60 percent for students who took the Algebra I end-of-course exam in the spring. That’s the biggest one-year increase in the history of the tests, which may be in their last year.

“Schools that are weak in algebra have been told they need to be putting effort into the subject,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s working.”

End-of-course exams are given in four high school courses: Algebra I, Biology, English II and U.S. history. Unlike the more familiar Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the end-of-course exams aren’t given at a specific grade. Students take them as soon as they’ve completed a particular course, whether freshmen or seniors.

English II scores took a tumble, with the passing rate falling from 75 to 69 percent. The other two tests were largely stable: biology’s passing rate stayed at 80 percent for the second straight year; U.S. history dipped 1 point, to 74 percent.

Of all the tests, Algebra I has always been the one to draw the most attention, primarily because its scores have always been the lowest of the four. When the Algebra I test was first given in spring 1996, only 27 percent of students passed, including 10 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics. The rate of passing has grown steadily ever since, including a 6-point gain last year.

When scores were lower, state officials blamed a shortage of fully certified math teachers. Last year, according to a Texas A&M study, the percentage of high school math teachers who are fully certified increased from 74 to 77 percent, but it’s unclear if the numbers will continue to rise.

Other than algebra, passing rates on the end-of-course tests have tended to rise more slowly than TAAS scores. Biology passing rates, for example, have increased only 9 percentage points in the last seven years.

English passing rates have dropped 9 points in the last two years.

“Algebra has been the test everyone has worried about,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “I think English has suffered because schools have put more emphasis on the difficulties in math and paid less attention to other subjects.”

The first end-of-course exams were launched in 1994, partly in response to criticism that the TAAS tests didn’t do enough to test high school students. The TAAS was given in every grade from third to eighth, but only once in high school, at 10th grade. Critics said the passing standards on the high school TAAS were too low, and they only tested skills in reading, writing and math.

But the TAAS is being retired this year, and in 2003, its replacement will debut: the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAKS. The new test will be given in ninth, 10th and 11th grades. All the subjects currently tested in end-of-course exams will be included in the high school TAKS tests.

As a result, this probably was the last time the end-of-course exams will be given in Texas. Ms. Ratcliffe said a final decision hasn’t been made, but the TAKS probably will make the older tests expendable.

She said some do favor keeping the algebra test for several more years, however, as an independent way of tracking math performance.