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Algebra failure rate at Central High School gets a second look

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 27. 2012 11:58PM

MANCHESTER - Fewer than 10 percent of freshmen failed to pass two semesters of algebra last year, according to new figures presented by district officials Tuesday night.

Concerns about the algebra failure first surfaced at parent meetings last month, after the principal at Central High indicated that a large number of students had failed the course.

These figures - ranging from 137 to close to 200 - were used by the new Hampshire Union Leader to estimate that a quarter to a third of the freshmen classes at each of the high schools failed at least one semester of algebra.

Superintendent Thomas Brennan told the school board's Curriculum and Instruction Committee that the data should have been more closely analyzed before it was released to the media. "I made the mistake of trying to get the information out quickly rather than accurately," he said. "I believe the lesson learned is sometimes you have to say to the media, 'I'll have to get back to you.'"

Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi, who presented the figures to the subcommittee Tuesday, said his figures were based on a close analysis of the failure rates initially reported by the school principals.

"Once we became aware of what I consider high numbers, Dr. Brennan and I convened with building principals to dig into the origin of those numbers," Tursi said.

Brennan then requested that all three principals report algebra failure numbers to his office.

According to Tursi, an average of 7 percent of freshmen failed two semesters of Algebra Skills at the three high schools, while 3 percent failed Algebra I, the more advanced course.

Tursi said the numbers provided by the principals double-counted students who had failed algebra two semesters. It also included students who weren't incoming freshmen; in other words, higher-year students who had to repeat the courses. Tursi's estimate of a 3 to 7 percent failure rate only included students who failed both semesters of algebra, and it was measured against the total number of incoming freshmen, not the total enrollment in the courses.

The analysis by district officials further found that more than 90 percent of the failures were on account of poor attendance or incomplete assignments, according to Tursi.

Tursi presented the information verbally and did not have a hard copy of the data. He said after the meeting that he didn't have figures for how the algebra failure rate compared to that of other subjects, nor could he say what percentage of students failed one semester of algebra.

Members of the subcommittee did not question the numbers presented by Tursi, but school board member John Avard said it was still concerning that 7 percent of freshmen failed basic algebra. "That's still a large number," he said.

Avard and other members said they wanted to see the examination of math performance expanded to lower grades. "I'd like to see tracking on a global basis," Avard said. "Are students coming from school X? Is there a tributary here that's really causing damage to our river?"

Subcommittee Chairman Sarah Ambrogi said, "Let's put this failure rate in context, and let's also look at this class and ask why 7 percent of freshmen in Algebra Skills are not motivated to come to class."

Parents have raised concerns about the district's math curriculum, particularly Everyday Math, which is taught in the elementary schools. They've also questioned how well math instruction is coordinated from one grade and school to the next - a concern that has also been raised by district officials.

Tursi said these issues still needed to be addressed. "I don't want the conversation about numbers to overshadow the need for teachers to have conversations regarding alignment across grade levels," he said. "One of the benefits the media attention has brought is it highlights the need for our teachers to have a link between the elementary schools, the middle schools, and the high schools."

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