The first year Florida ninth graders took the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam, less than half those students passed the test.
Students must pass the exam to earn a high school diploma, so the results worried school officials.
In the two years since, districts are trying a number of ways to help students through the exam. Earlier this week we told you about Pinellas County schools’ six-week summer algebra boot camp for incoming freshmen who had yet to take Algebra 1.
The University of Florida’s education school and a UF graduate also teamed up on a project, creating the online Algebra Nation. Algebra Nation is a combination of online videos, traditional workbooks and an always-available online network of professionals and peers able to help students solve for Y.
Algebra Nation surveyed teachers about what they wanted, said Ethan Fieldman, the founder of a tutoring firm that helped launch Algebra Nation. Most teachers weren’t happy with the available online videos and wanted something more tailored for Florida’s math standards.
“Khan Academy videos are nice,” Fieldman said, “but they’re boring, and the students want to connect with real people…that they can see on the screen.”
Algebra Nation has four key components:
Videos — These feature teachers explaining algebra concepts. The videos come in short and long versions, so students who want more depth can get it.
Study guides — Algebra Nation distributed about 250,000 algebra workbooks to schools across Florida.
The Wall — This always-available online message system is monitored by UF grad students and fellow middle- and high-schoolers. Algebra Nation even came up with a scoring system to reward students for helping their peers.
Test Yourself — This last piece helps students prepare for the online exam. Fieldman says the Algebra 1 exam may be the first time students encounter a test of its type, so these practice questions and exercises get students ready for the online exam.
Teachers use Algebra Nation in different ways, Fieldman said. Some flip their classrooms, doing homework in class and sending kids home to watch online lessons. Others use it to identify weak skills or reteach concepts students didn’t learn the first time. Teachers also leave Algebra Nation units as lesson plans for substitute teachers.
“This is the WD-40 of algebra, or this is the Swiss Army Knife,” Fieldman said. Algebra Nation is like the workers handing out water and bananas to marathon runners, he said.
The program received $2 million in state funding each of the past two years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also contributed $250,000 for the promotion of Florida’s Common Core-based math standards.
Algebra Nation has also learned another lesson in its two years — the power of smart phones. About 70 percent to 80 percent of students have a smart phone, Fieldman said. And they can access the app by phone almost anytime or anywhere.
Fieldman heard from the family of one student who would study with Algebra Nation on her smartphone during her hours-long roundtrip bus ride.
“People assume that these students have computers at home,” he said. “Most of these students don’t…or they don’t have Internet, they don’t have something.”
It’s why Algebra Nation has worked hard to make the app compatible with older smart phones that might be hand-me-downs from a brother or sister.
So how’s it working so far?
The percentage of students passing the spring Algebra 1 end-of-course exam was 66 percent, an increase of 1 percentage point. In 2012, the spring passing rate was 58 percent.
But the ninth grade passing rate is significant because that’s the year that more than half of all Algebra 1 test-takers try the exam for the first time.
This year, 52 percent of ninth graders passed the spring Algebra 1 exam. That rate is unchanged since last year. In 2012, 48 percent of ninth graders passed the spring exam.