California 8th graders will be required to take Algebra 1 and be tested on it as part of the state’s accountability system, under a controversial decision made by the state board of education last week after last-minute pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The board voted 8-1 July 9 to approve the requirement, which could be could be phased in for the state’s nearly 490,000 8th graders as early as the 2009-10 school year if the plan passes muster under federal accountability standards.
In a July 8 letter to board President Theodore R. Mitchell, Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, urged the board to raise the bar for students as its members considered the assessment of state mathematics standards in 8th grade.
California joins Minnesota as the only states with a requirement that all students take algebra in 8th grade. The Minnesota mandate goes into effect for the 2010-11 school year.
California was forced to move on the issue because it has been under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to meet an Aug. 1 deadline to align its testing program with its state math standards in 8th grade. While more than half the state’s 8th graders already take algebra and are tested on it, the rest are tested on 6th and 7th grade general mathematics skills.
“This fork in the road is a choice between California’s bold future and a status quo that is safe, mediocre, and unacceptable,” the governor said in the letter. He called on the board “to do away with the below-grade-level general mathematics test” and adopt the more rigorous measure for federal accountability purposes.
But math educators in the state, as well as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, have opposed the plan.
“I strongly disagree with the governor’s proposal to require algebra ... without also offering any of the support for our school districts and schools to successfully make this major change,” the elected schools chief said in a statement. He added that he was disturbed that the governor didn’t weigh in on the debate until the “11th hour.”
In 1997, California was among the first states to implement a standards-based accountability system, and has been praised for its high expectations. While taking algebra is the state’s goal for all 8th graders—and while the percentage of 8th graders taking algebra has increased to 52 percent in the current school year from 34 percent in 2003—almost half of students in the grade are still taking a lower-level math class. Passing an algebra course is currently only required to receive a high school diploma.
Mr. O’Connell said in his own letter to the state board that requiring all 8th graders to take algebra would especially be hard on African-American and Hispanic students who, as demographic subgroups, are still not even scoring at the proficient level “on what amounts to 7th grade standards.” (See “Catching Up on Algebra”, April 23, 2008.)
“To suggest that we simply enroll these struggling students in Algebra 1 without any additional support or instruction would be, I believe, highly irresponsible,” he wrote.
Mr. O’Connell stressed he is “strong in my belief that every child can and should succeed in algebra in 8th grade.” But he went on to say that without the proper resources—including adequate teacher expertise, professional development, and enough instructional time for math—“we cannot expect our students to succeed when we adults have not done our part.”
Mr. O’Connell instead had proposed a “blueprint” for gradually increasing the rigor of the math assessment taken by students not yet enrolled in an algebra course. Under his proposal, a new test would have been developed that would have been based on algebra standards but would not have included all algebra standards.
Gov. Schwarzenegger, however, had said that such a plan would “perpetuate a two-track system: one for high achievers and one for those of whom we expect less.”
Education officials so far have offered no details about any budget impact from the move. But providing support to get teachers ready to teach algebra to all 8th graders could be difficult given a California budget deficit estimated at $17 billion at one point, which has forced cuts in all departments, including education.
Studies show that taking algebra in middle school is linked to higher mathematics achievement in high school, a finding reaffirmed by the report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel released earlier this year. But the panel also called for more emphasis on the foundational skills that students need to make the transition to algebra, including concepts such as fractions. (See “Panel Calls for Systematic, Basic Approach to Math”, March 19, 2008.)
California has made available a variety of “algebra readiness” programs, but they are not in place statewide.
The students who struggle the most with the abstract nature of algebra are those who tend to lack “understanding around the key big ideas” throughout elementary math, said Terry Vendlinkski, a senior researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mr. Vendlinski has also taught 8th grade in Santa Monica, Calif., and is crafting a program to help teachers better teach the concepts that lead to success in algebra.
“Is there a better way to do it so that more students get it right off the bat?” he said. “If you don’t understand the concrete, it’s hard to make the leap to the abstract.”
Another challenge is the variability within algebra courses themselves, said James M. Rubillo, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
“We’ve seen a lot of schools trying to mandate Algebra 1, and the failure rates are very high,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily take into account the readiness of the students or the capability of the teaching force.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as California Board Mandates Algebra 1 for All 8th Graders