Scores improve on Florida’s final exams, but thousands struggle with crucial algebra test

Nearly two in three students who took Florida’s crucial Algebra I end-of-course exam this year passed on the first try, a high-water mark for the state.

Test scores released Monday by the Florida Department of Education also show passing rates improved on final exams for geometry, biology and U.S. history that gauge whether students have mastered the courses.

Local school officials mostly celebrated the scores and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she was “encouraged” by the results, the final to be released before school grades are calculated.

“This does represent a great deal of hard work by our teachers and by our students and school leaders,” Stewart said in a conference call with reporters. “We will work to see that every single student passes not only the [exams] but the statewide assessments overall.”

The scores, along with Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results and a middle school civics exam, are counted toward school grades. Good grades can mean cash rewards and community recognition, while schools that receive low marks may face potential staffing overhauls and even closure.

None of the results released Monday, however, is more important for students than those from the algebra test, which they must pass in order to graduate with a diploma.

In Miami-Dade, more than two-thirds of students who took the algebra test for the first time passed, an improvement of three points over last year. In Broward, passing rates held steady at 65 percent, according to the state.

Nearly 50,000 students in the two counties took the algebra exam in the spring alone. So, with about one-third failing, more than 10,000 South Florida students will have to try again to pass. Students will have multiple opportunities, and many do ultimately pass.

Until this year, students also had to pass end-of-course exams in biology and geometry to earn their degrees. But a change in law last year reduced the onus on those exams, which are no longer hurdles to graduation but still make up 30 percent of a student’s final course grade.

Instead, students must only pass the exams if they want to earn a “scholar” designation on their diploma — a move legislators hoped would eliminate a “bottleneck” of students re-taking exams to graduate high school. This year’s freshmen and incoming high school students also must pass an Algebra II exam to earn a scholar’s designation, which is supposed to denote students seeking a college education.

Students on the other diploma track are said to be seeking a career in the workforce, though receiving a technical or “merit” designation doesn’t preclude a student from going to college.

As for the other tests, Miami-Dade students passed in greater numbers than in the past, posting small improvements in biology and geometry and notable gains in U.S. history.

“This bodes well for Miami-Dade,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “To be one of only 13 districts out of 67 in the state where there was compelling improvement in all four areas of data released today is once again a vindication for teachers and students.”

Broward students also made major improvements on the history exam, which state officials said could be attributed to the Legislature’s decision to require the course for a scholar’s diploma, leading higher-performing students to take the class and exam. They showed a small improvement on the biology test, but scores stayed flat on the geometry exam, according to the state.

Students also took a civics exam for the first time this year, but satisfactory scores haven't been set and the results won't count toward school grades.

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.

This article has been changed to correct information about the end-of-course civics exam.