8th Grade Algebra on Hold in California

By Sean Cavanagh — October 29, 2008 2 min read
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Opponents of a new mandate requiring that all California students take introductory algebra in 8th grade scored a victory in court this week. How significant a victory? Check back in December.

A Sacramento County superior court judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the new mandate from taking effect. Judge Shelleyanne Chang agreed the groups that sued to prevent the requirement from going forward, the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators, would “suffer irreparable injury before the matter can be heard” formally, the Associated Press reported.

She said the state Board of Education, which approved the policy earlier this year, can’t make any further decisions on the algebra test until a Dec. 19 court hearing.

Opponents of the requirement have said that the board had rushed into making the decision, which was also backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that it would set an unrealistically high bar for many students. State data shows that many 8th graders struggle mightily in algebra, and even more basic math, on state tests. Even some experts who favor setting higher standards for elementary and middle school math have questioned the policy, saying many students would be better off waiting until 9th grade to take Algebra 1, when they’re more likely to be ready.

Policymakers, and business advocates, have taken a strong interest in getting more students into introductory algebra earlier in school. They reason that those students are more likely to move on to advanced math and science courses, study those subjects in college, and choose careers in those areas.

It remains to be seen whether the California judge’s decision, and the overall battle being waged there over 8th grade algebra, has an impact on other states. Only one other state, Minnesota, has a middle school algebra policy similar to California’s.

A crucial question in California is the degree to which economic uncertainties will influence the algebra policy. Many economists believe the nation is headed into prolonged rough patch, which, as Ed Week has reported, is likely to sap money from state budgets for schools. (Here’s an online “chat” we hosted on this topic.)

Opponents of the California algebra requirement, which was to be phased in over three years, have predicted that it would cost the state billions of dollars, in teaching hiring and other areas. (The critics include state schools chief Jack O’Connell, who says the mandate would force California schools to double the number of middle school Algebra 1 teachers.) California is already coping with a budget deficit. Will the state and school districts put money into a new math curriculum requirement, if other, existing education programs are under financial strain?

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