Algebra Overhaul in California

By Sean Cavanagh — July 10, 2008 3 min read
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Any way you slice it, California’s decision to require that students take Algebra 1, and be tested in it, in 8th grade is a major undertaking for the state.

Supporters of the action, including the state’s board of education and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, believe the state needs to be setting more demanding standards in math. They’ve also argued that without the requirement, the state is essentially promoting a two-tier system, in which some students are challenged with algebra in 8th grade and others take more generic math courses.

Opposing the requirement was California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who said the measure would “severely impact students and schools,” given students’ serious shortcomings in algebra to date.

“Just putting all students in algebra, regardless of what the data tell us, is not a responsible course of action,” O’Connell said in a statement. “Clearly, different strategies need to be put in place if we expect all students to succeed in 8th grade algebra.”

In many ways, this is a debate that plays out across academic subjects, but it is especially acute in math. In one camp, you have advocates demanding higher standards and more challenging math material, earlier in school. Some of them see this as a matter of equity; all students deserve to be challenged in math, they reason, because if you don’t, early on, you’re denying them the opportunity to take more demanding math later on, and thus, denying them academic opportunity.

Others agree that increasing standards is important, and so is equity. But raising standards makes little sense, they say, if students, and entire school systems, are unprepared to meet the challenges of courses such as Algebra 1. O’Connell is making a similiar case, pointing to the low numbers of California students, especially minorities, reaching the “proficient” mark in algebra today.

To date, California’s standards recommend that students take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, and it has increased the numbers of students who are doing so in recent years. And the state’s students already had to take Algebra 1 in order to graduate with a regular diploma.

But no mistake, the new 8th grade algebra step is big. Just how big?

Only 23 percent of California middle and high school students reached the proficient mark in algebra on the most recent state test last year. By comparison, 49 percent met that mark on the 5th grade state math test, and 40 percent reached that standard as 7th graders.

Last year, I wrote a story about students’ struggles in introductory algebra. Those problems persist, even as states and schools across the country move to teach that subject earlier in school. That story, which also looked at why mathematicians and others believe algebra is important, at all, focuses mostly on California.

In an attempt to help students across the state, California officials last year approved 11 separate “algebra readiness” programs for use in the state’s schools, which were aimed at helping students catch up to grade level in that math subject. And as I saw, many of these students were in clear need of help.

In a number of classrooms using the algebra-readiness materials, individual teachers were trying to rebuild students’ math knowledge from 2nd through 7th grades over the course of a single calendar year, while also introducing them to enough algebra so they’d be ready for a full Algebra 1 class the following year. These were not, in other words, simply the typical “pre-algebra” courses that you might have taken in 7th or 8th grade. These were remedial programs, designed to build students’ skills quickly.

Most of the classes I saw were for students in 8th or 9th grade. Some had already flunked Algebra 1 once; others had been identified as being at risking of failing it the following year, so their schools decided to give them extra help, up front. The “readiness” program I saw being developed by the MIND Research Institute relied heavily on visual representations of math to help struggling students.

I expect we’ll see more states and districts grappling with the question of how much algebra to require of students, and when, in the years ahead. And they’re likely to be seeking out “readiness” and remedial programs for the students who are struggling to keep up.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.