New Math Course in Georgia Brings Low Pass Rate, Uncertainty

Georgia’s high school math teachers recently completed their first run of a new math course intended to bring the state into line with newly-minted Common Core standards. While some teachers are happy with the new 9th grade course, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that student scores on the semester course’s last exam were discouragingly low. Wayne Washington writes that most teachers aren’t ready to give up, but the new material may be exposing weaknesses in earlier grades’ math education.

The new course, called Coordinate Algebra, is a blend of algebra, geometry and statistics. The previous 9th grade class was called Math I, and in both courses, the final exam counted for a large portion of the student’s grade. Teachers remember older students’ comparative success in Math I, where in 2010, half the students met or exceeded the standard and tended to pass the course.

By contrast, the new course produced a high failure rate. Only about 40% of students passed the last exam; the other nearly 60% failed it.

Georgia education officials said that the drop in passing rate was expected, based on the experiences of other states in transitioning to the Common Core standards.

Last year in Kentucky, the percentage of students who were rated as proficient or better in math and reading dropped by a third after officials moved to common-core material. And half of Florida’s 9th- and 10th-grade students failed the reading portion of the state’s annual assessment, which incorporated common-core material for the first time.

The state also points to a new social studies curriculum that produced very low test scores in 2008, after new standards were introduced in 2006. They view it as a process, as teachers adjust to the new material. Students may enter the course without necessary background skills, and teachers are not sure at first how things will go. Some teachers reported no problems, while others had to watch for comprehension issues.

Lynne Bombard, a 14-year teaching veteran who teaches coordinate algebra at Peachtree Ridge High in Gwinnett County, said there is a learning curve for teachers and students any time a new curriculum is offered.

“When you teach something for a long time, you tend to know when students are going to struggle, when you need to go slower,” she said.

For students, the experience was harsher, since they can’t take such a philosophical approach. While some learned the material easily, others saw their expected math grades drop to failing. A private tutor hired for one such struggling student was interviewed by the AJC for his perspective on the difficulties. He explained that new material came too fast for students to integrate it into their skills. The problem was especially tough if their previous schools hadn’t been rigorous enough in teaching math basics.

Brandon’s tutor, Chris Millett, said Georgia does not do a good enough job teaching young students the basics of math, a failure that shows up in later years when they are exposed to rigorous material like that found in coordinate algebra. He also said students are expected to retain too much information from a single course.

With all of the changes going on in public schools right now, the shift to the Common Core standards is hitting the kids the hardest. Georgia has already begun taking steps to try to explain to parents what’s going on. Their hope is that within a few years, things will be operating smoothly again.

Parents, of course, just want their own kids to survive the changes and be able to reach adulthood with better skills and undamaged confidence.