After some eighth-grade students in Texas public schools finish their state math exams in May, they could have to sit back down soon after and take another one.
Federal and state officials are in talks to work out a conflict between testing requirements under the state’s new high school graduation standards and federal education law. Currently Texas school districts are left with two options for the roughly 23 percent of eighth-graders — about 86,000 students last school year — who take algebra I before they reach high school. The districts could either ignore federal law, which could subject them to penalties, or test them twice — once in algebra I to fulfill state requirements and once under the eighth-grade-level math assessment used for federal accountability purposes.
The 2013 Texas Legislature unanimously passed legislation reducing the number of state assessments students must take to graduate from 15 to five. Only one exam in math is required — algebra I, which many students take in ninth grade. That means if students take algebra I before they reach high school, they could graduate under Texas law without taking another a state standardized test in math. But under federal accountability measures, a student must be tested in math every year from grades three through eight, as well as at least once in high school.
State efforts to reach an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education on aligning those two mandates have failed so far. This month, the Texas Education Agency announced that the federal government had denied its request for a "double-testing" waiver for students who took algebra I in eighth grade. TEA Commissioner Michael Williams said he submitted the waiver because double-testing was not “instructionally appropriate” or a “valid evaluation of mathematics.”
To keep districts from deciding against offering algebra at the middle school level to avoid testing-associated complications, he said this year the state would only count results of the algebra I exam in its calculations of ratings.
“Such a move would seriously disadvantage students who move quickly through the mathematics curriculum in grades K-8 and would benefit from taking advanced coursework in middle school,” Williams said of middle schools potentially ending algebra 1 courses. “Should a Texas district or charter elect to make such a move, this stalls students’ academic progress and provides them with one less opportunity to take an advanced mathematics course or another relevant upper-division course in high school.”
The TEA’s March recommendation to not double-test students was a reversal of its instructions to school districts before the start of the school year, when Williams said he “reluctantly” recommended that they test students taking algebra I in eighth grade twice to fulfill the requirements — advising districts that they should either plan on administering multiple exams or “understand the potential federal accountability consequences of testing these students only on algebra I.”
Further complicating the situation, shortly after the TEA said the federal government had rejected the state’s waiver application, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement clarifying that it had not actually denied it — and was working with the state to “find a solution” that would ensure “that Texas students taking Algebra in middle school are also being assessed on higher-level math content in high school to help prepare them for college and a career.”
“There is certainly confusion among parents and even among students,” said Drew Scheberle, the senior vice president of education at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, who frequently testifies at state hearings on assessment and accountability issues. “I have friends and colleagues who tutor kids say, ‘I am getting requests for students in algebra I to be tutored in eighth-grade math so that they can take a test.’”
The Austin Independent School District is among the school districts in the state, including its largest, Houston ISD, that have decided to follow the TEA’s recommendation to only offer a state exam in algebra I for eighth-grade students taking the advanced math course.
When contacted by The Texas Tribune, TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said in an email that state talks with federal officials were still underway.
She said the agency advised districts that the waiver would not be granted in March because they were preparing to begin testing in early April, but that to date, the federal education department had not provided a “formal declination of approval” for the waiver.
Because the state had not received a formal response, Callahan said, there was also “no clear indication” of the consequences districts might face if they ignore federal testing requirements.
“The choice to double-test middle school students taking algebra I is now strictly a local decision,” she said.