Georgia students struggle on test tied to common core math course

Judging from students’ initial experience in a new math course, Georgia’s move to a common core of academic standards shared by 44 other states won’t be painless.

Just under 59 percent did not meet the standard set for an end-of-course test after they took a new algebra course tied to the common core.

The test was the first student performance measure since the state moved to common-core curriculum, and the low marks dredged up memories of the fight over “integrated math,” which combined a trio of math concepts in a single course that came to be reviled by many. After a public outcry, districts were given the option of dropping the course.

State education officials said they have no plans to move away from the new math course, a combination of algebra, geometry and statistics called coordinate algebra. Coordinate algebra was offered to 9th-graders for the first time last fall. Its end-of-course test counted for 20 percent of a student’s grade.

The course, education officials said, will help students make a smoother transition to more rigorous material.

Coordinate algebra replaces Math I, whose end-of-course test counted for 15 percent of a student’s grade. Georgia students had moderate success on that test, with 45 percent meeting or exceeding the standard in 2011 and 52 percent meeting or exceeding the standard in 2010.

Officials at the state Department of Education said they anticipated the drop in performance and tied it to the newness of the coordinate algebra course.

“The results that we’ve seen are in line with what we’re seeing in other states that have adopted and implemented the common core,” said Melissa Fincher, associate superintendent for accountability and assessment.

Fincher pointed to Florida and Kentucky, where scores dropped on tests tied to common-core material.

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.

In Georgia, this isn’t the first time students have bombed on a test tied to new material. The state tossed out the low scores students got on the social studies 2008 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which was tied to standards that were introduced in 2006.

State education officials say those standards were unclear, and they won’t toss out the coordinate algebra end-of-test scores.

Lisa Archer, a third-year math teacher who is teaching a coordinate algebra course at Etowah High School in Cherokee County, said her students are off to a good start.

“We had a very low failure rate for the first semester,” Archer said, adding that the new material has not been difficult to teach. “As a math teacher, I happen to like the new curriculum.”

Yvonne Sorrell of Marietta, a medical assistant whose son, Brandon, is a 9th-grader at Pope High School, said she isn’t wild about the new curriculum.

Brandon, she said, got A’s and B’s in math — until he took coordinate algebra. Moving to Pope from a private school, Brandon struggled mightily, getting F’s before his mother hired a tutor, who helped him pull that grade up to a C.

“I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Brandon Sorrell said.

“It’s a challenge for the students, especially if you’re coming from out-of-state or a private school,” Yvonne Sorrell said of coordinate algebra. “I think they should have implemented it more slowly.”

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.

“The teachers have so much material to cover, they have to fly through it,” said Millett, who has a master’s degree in data processing and statistics and has been tutoring students for seven years.

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.

Teachers are getting adjusted to the new curriculum, Bombard said, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right move to make.

“Any time there is new stuff like this, there is nervousness,” she said. “But you know if you’re doing your business in the classroom, things will work out.”