Pass rates fell sharply last school year as the state switched to a more challenging algebra exam that students will now need to pass to graduate high school, according to data released Thursday by the State Education Department.

Sixty-three percent of all test-takers passed the Common Core-aligned Algebra I Regents examination last school year, compared to 72 percent who passed an easier exam that students took the previous year, according to the data. The drops are even steeper for black and Hispanic students, as well as high-need students.

The slide was worse in New York City. In 2014, 65 percent of students passed the Integrated Algebra exam, but just 52 percent passed Common Core Algebra I in 2015.

For the first time last year, ninth graders could not take the less rigorous exam, known as Integrated Algebra. The exam, aligned to 2005 math standards, is being phased out as the state transitions to the more demanding Common Core learning standards.

Data provided by the city education department shows Regents pass rates are down on Common Core-aligned math exams and up in other subjects.
Regents pass rates are down on math exams, but up in other subjects. (Source: NYC DOE)

“Reality is setting in,” said Kim Nauer, an education researcher at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

State education officials had sought to ensure pass rates did not significantly change during the transition to the new algebra test, but the latest data offers the clearest sign yet that the department missed the mark. The disparity is even wider for students already at risk of falling behind, a miscalculation that could have major implications for thousands of high school students in the coming years.

At Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, where many students are recent immigrants with limited English skills, pass rates fell from 63 percent on the old exam to 14 percent on the new version. Peter Lamphere, an algebra teacher at the school, said he feared that his students’ path to graduation has gotten much harder.

“It’s terrifying,” he said.

David Rubel, an education consultant who has been outspoken in his concerns about how the state is rolling out the new test, said the new data raises additional questions about future implementation plans.

“Clearly they were not successful and I think this calls for a major reconsideration of the transition,” Rubel said.

State education department spokesman Tom Dunn did not explain why the change was greater than in past years. In a statement, he said that pass rates “tend to fluctuate for numerous reasons related to population changes and shifts in instruction.”

New York has pushed aggressively to align its state tests and graduation requirements to the new standards, which emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A national movement toward more rigorous standards has followed a recognition that too many students are graduating high school without the skills needed for college.

But the pace of implementation in elementary and middle school grades has demoralized many teachers who say the switch to harder standards happened too quickly and without adequate training or corresponding curriculum. Parents have also complained that schools are becoming too focused on preparing students for the new tests.

John Ewing, president of Math For America, said it was not surprising that students struggled to meet the new math standards. Students need to be exposed early to Common Core-aligned instruction, he said, not halfway through their education.

“This is improv,” Ewing said of the rollout. “Most of the kids taking these tests right now have seen just a tiny fraction of what is supposed to be in the Common Core.”

The switch to a new exam proved most troublesome for black and Latino students, whose pass rates dropped by more than 20 points, as well as at-risk students. Pass rates dropped from 56 percent to 28 percent for English language learners, from 43 percent to 26 percent for students with disabilities, and from 64 percent to 48 percent for poor students.

One risk is that thousands more students get caught up in what teachers call the “algebra whirlpool,” a phenomenon in which students retake the exam multiple times and are unable to proceed to more advanced math courses.

“Teachers have to figure out a way to get these kids to pass,” said Nauer, the education researcher who has written about the issue. “It’s not great for kids. They’re just sort of stuck.”

The new exams feature fewer multiple choice questions and more extended-response questions, which reflect the emphasis on reading skills that flows through all grades and subjects of the Common Core. They also feature new material, such as quadratic equations, that had previously been on the state’s Algebra II Regents exams.

Wary of more pushback, state education officials planned to give high schools extra time to switch to the new tests. Students were allowed to take both the old and new algebra exams two years ago and keep whichever score was higher. The same flexibility was provided last year for the Geometry and English Regents exams.

But with the stakes higher this year, questions about the new exams were raised almost immediately after they were administered in June — the first time freshmen took them without having the option of using scores from the easier exam. Rubel raised the possibility that large numbers of students could be more at risk of failing the new exam than previously anticipated, writing that the department had used a flawed scoring methodology.

Thursday’s data release includes the pass rates of 13 Regents exams that students took in the last school year, including three that are aligned to the Common Core. In addition to algebra, students are also now required to take new Common Core English and Geometry Regents exams, although they do not yet have to pass them to graduate.

New Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has said she is reviewing the state’s current high school graduation requirements. Last month, she announced that she was convening a workgroup to study the algebra exam pass rate standards.

“We expressed concern surrounding the algebra exam, and are encouraged that the state formed a committee that New York City is participating in,” city spokeswoman Devora Kaye said.

Most educators agree that the algebra tests are harder, but some said the shift is better in the long term.

Eric Scholtz, a math teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future, said that the tests were closely aligned to what’s in the standards, but said he’s still “getting used to how they are interpreting the standards.”

“The worst I can say is that it’s a little wordier than I expected,” Scholtz said, “But we’re definitely headed in a right direction.”

Correction: An earlier version misstated the difference in pass rate percentages for New York City between 2014 and 2015.