The Achievement Gap Nobody Talks About - Part 1: The Chasm

Following the June 2008 Integrated Algebra Regents exam -- the only math exam required to receive a NYS high school diploma -- NYSED commissioned a technical report to analyze the results. That report, the only such one I have found so far, was posted on the NYSED website, seemingly to no public or media notice despite its startling revelations about a racial achievement gap in mathematics that education officials in NYC and throughout NYS had by 2008 already been claiming for years was well on its way to being eliminated.

While recent revisions to the cut score levels on the NYS Grade 3 - 8 exams have exploded that myth, the June 2008 Integrated Algebra technical report (available for download here) provides striking indications that the gap may be much worse at the high school level. Analyzing the results for 175,000 mostly ninth-grade students statewide who sat for the June 2008 test, where a scaled passing score of 65 was (and continues to be) derived from a raw score of just 30 out of 87 points maximum (34.5%), the report reveals:

** Overall pass rate, all students: 75.06%
** White student pass rate: 88.08%
** Black student pass rate: 53.17%
** Hispanic student pass rate: 58.71%
** Black/White gap: 35.91 pct. pts.
** Hispanic/White gap: 29.37 pct. pts.

These achievement gaps at the ninth grade level already substantially exceeded those reported in the June 23, 2008 Commissioner's Press Conference presentation slides (available here) for Grade 3 - 8 Mathematics (Black/White -- 22.4 percentage points, Hispanic/White -- 17.2 percentage points), despite the fact that these same ninth grade students had for the previous five years been the very ones whose increased proficiency had been so widely and unquestioningly touted.

Even more disturbing, however, is that any raising of the bar on the Grade 9 Integrated Algebra exam along the lines of those just implemented by Commissioner Steiner for the Grade 3 - 8 exams (where the weighted average raw score percentage across grades for achieving Level 3 in 2010 was increased from 47.1% of the available exam points to 72.4%) would likely transform an alarming racial achievement gap into a veritable chasm, a Grand Canyon of racial disparity in high school math achievement.

For example, based on the detailed 2008 exam data, if the Regents Integrated Algebra passing bar had been raised from its current 34.5% of the available raw score points (30 out of 87) to just over 50% (44 out of 87), the Black student pass rate would have been reduced by more than half and the Hispanic student pass rate by a little less than half, as detailed in the table below:

** Revised overall pass rate, all students: 52.28% (-22.78 pct. pts.)
** Revised White student pass rate: 67.74% (-20.34 pct. pts.)
** Revised Black student pass rate: 24.85% (-27.32 pct. pts.)
** Revised Hispanic student pass rate: 31.11% (-27.60 pct. pts.)
** Revised Black/White gap: 42.89 pct. pts. (+6.98 pct. pts.)
** Revised Hispanic/White gap: 36.63 pct. pts. (+7.26 pct. pts.)

In other words, raising the expectations bar enough to require students to earn at least 50% of the raw score points (where Grade 3 - 8 children now must earn over 70% of their available points under Steiner's new standard) would have resulted in less than one-third of the Hispanic students and less than one-fourth of the Black students passing. Furthermore, the Black/White achievement gap would have climbed to just under a staggering 43 percentage points, and the Hispanic/White gap to almost 37 percentage points. By comparison, the combined 2010 Grade 3 - 8 achievement gaps for Black and Hispanic students following the recent Steiner cut score upward revisions were 30.2 and 23.8 points, respectively (Commissioner's slide presentation available here). Note that these achievement gaps, even after revision to a higher standard, are still markedly less than the June 2008 Regents math achievement gaps even under their (continuing) low-expectations pass levels (shown in the first table above).

Regent exam breakdowns (score distributions in total and by ethnic and other breakdowns such as ELL, students with disabilities, low SES, etc.) are not routinely publicized, to the best of my knowledge. The one I found for Integrated Algebra appears to have been a special situation for a new exam. And while the data is presented on a statewide basis only, we know for a fact that well over 40,000 of the 175,000 students tested, perhaps as many as 50,000, were NYC public high school students.

Isn't it time that this type of data, so aggressively presented and touted for the Grade 3 - 8 exams, also be presented to the public, at least for the Regents core subject exams if not for all of them? Shouldn't this type of data also be made available for NYC schools, just as the DOE now does for its Grade 3 - 8 exam results? Isn't it curious that for all the talk about Grades 3 - 8, no one -- not the State Commission, not the Regents board, and certainly not Chancellor Klein and his irrepressible P.R. machine, EVER break down and/or talk about the results of the high school Regents exams from 2003 to 2010. Why is that?

After all, don't these exams provide some measure of the success (or lack thereof) of all the Grade 3 - 8 testing? If those earlier-year educational benefits cannot be carried over into high school, then something is wrong, and we have a right to know. A Grade 4 student still has time for remediation and support, a luxury not so readily available or achievable at the high school level, where there are relatively few second chances.

In any event, for Commissioner Steiner to be consistent in his insistence on college readiness expectations of NYS public school students (and even a 50% standard still falls well short of "college ready" in my judgment), an increase in the Integrated Algebra cut score level seems inescapable. If and when that happens, the impact for many will be a rude awakening, to say the least. Like Wile E. Coyote running right past the edge of the unseen cliff, the drop to the canyon floor below will be a long, long, long way down.

NOTE: My next posting, "Part 2: Where's the Proficiency?," will reveal some shocking information about the 2008/09 Integrated Algebra exam in NYC's public high schools.
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