How’s Your Math, Your Honor?

By Sean Cavanagh — September 09, 2008 2 min read
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Having spent many of my days as a scribe covering state and local governments, I can tell you that when opponents of a government policy want to challenge it, two of their most common strategies are:

1) To say that it was approved without the necessary public input;


2) To challenge whether the public officials who approved it exceeded their authority under the law.

Those two arguments are now being employed in a lawsuit challenging the state of California’s new requirement that all 8th graders be tested in Algebra 1, one of the toughest such measures in the country. That mandate has the effect of requiring that all students take that course as 8th graders in order to prepare for the exam, state officials say.

Just because those legal strategies are used quite a bit doesn’t mean they’re off base, or that they don’t work. Opponents of the California board of education’s decision complained from the get-go that the 8th grade algebra mandate, which was supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was rushed through the process. The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, in Sacramento County, also argues that the board’s July 9 decision is a “de facto change” in the state’s academic standards for math, and that the board had no right to change them without approval by the legislature.

Among other points, the plaintiffs cite a 2005 opinion by the state’s Legislative Counsel as limiting the board’s right to change academic contend standards after they have been adopted.

The California algebra plan doesn’t take effect for three years. It has strong backing from the business community, but it has drawn the ire of several school organizations, including the California School Boards Assocation and the Association of California School Administrators, both of whom filed the suit. In my story from earlier this summer, I also reported that several members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, who have advocated for more effective and streamlined teaching of algebra, nonetheless worried about the impact of the California plan. They feared it would result in the teaching of watered-down 8th grade algebra, and in many students, who are well below grade level, being pushed into the subject before they’re ready.

Those who are fighting the algebra mandate also note that just last year the board of education approved a set of “algebra readiness” materials for state adoption, resources aimed at bringing the state’s many struggling students up to speed in math. The impact of those new programs is unclear.

None of this may offer much in the way of gripping courtroom drama, if it even gets that far. But the lawsuit underscores the depth of opposition to the mandate in some districts in the state.

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