Experts Question Calif.’s Algebra Edict

By Sean Cavanagh — July 23, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Instructional Research Group of Signal Hill, Calif. It is a nonprofit research institute specializing in education topics.

Business leaders from important sectors of the American economy have been urging schools to set higher standards in math and science—and California officials, in mandating that 8th graders be tested in introductory algebra, have responded with one of the highest such standards in the land.

Still, many California educators and school administrators are questioning how their state will meet the new requirement, given students’ persistent struggles in that subject and the potential demand it will generate for more math teachers and classroom resources.

Those concerns are also shared by some members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group that spent nearly two years examining strategies to prepare students for algebra. In interviews, four of the panelists, some of whom have disagreed with each other over approaches to math instruction, agreed in their view that the California requirement is a mistake.

“It’s a shortsighted policy that confuses taking a course with learning,” said Tom Loveless, a panelist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washingon. “The state has not been serious about preparing kids for algebra—they’re just throwing it on the schools. It’s absolutely far-fetched.”

Algebra is widely regarded as crucial to students’ academic progress, and, some say, to their success in the future economy. California’s testing mandate, which takes effect in three years, means schools are likely to be forced to enroll all 8th graders in introductory algebra, or Algebra 1, to prepare them for the test, state officials say. California becomes only the second state with a requirement for a grade 8 algebra test, along with Minnesota, which is phasing one in, according to the Education Commission of the States.

More Math, Earlier

States have gradually moved to increase the number of students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Among them:


SOURCE: Council of Chief State School Officers

Yet Mr. Loveless, a former elementary school teacher in California, said policymakers there were wrongly assuming that simply enrolling students in 8th grade algebra will result in more of them becoming proficient in the subject. An examination of students’ math course-taking and test performance, he said, shows that premise to be false.

Another panelist, Vern Williams, echoed another of Mr. Loveless’ concerns: California schools, when faced with the reality that many of their 8th graders are not ready for Algebra 1, will simply water down those courses and craft classes that are Algebra 1 “in name only,” as Mr. Williams put it.

Mr. Williams, who has taught algebra for much of his 36-year career and now teaches in Falls Church, Va., said some students, even motivated ones, are not ready for algebra until 9th grade. By forcing students into that class early, schools risk not only discouraging struggling learners, but also holding back higher-achievers, who have to wait for classmates to catch up.

“Sometimes, it’s strictly the [lack of] math preparation” that causes students to struggle, Mr. Williams said. “But also, there are just kids, even bright kids who ... need to be exposed to a bit more math in 8th grade, or to a pre-algebra course.”

Tensions Between Parties

But supporters of the new policy, approved by an 8-1 vote by the California board of education earlier this month, say it will bring more equity to math instruction by giving all students access to Algebra 1. About half of California’s 8th graders take that course now. Completing Algebra 1 is essential to moving on to more challenging math, which in turn increases students’ odds of prospering in college and the workforce, they say.

“The research has been pretty clear that Algebra 1 is a gateway course,” said Theodore R. Mitchell, the president of the California board. “We wanted to make it clear we’re going to give all kids the opportunity to go through the gateway. We will not have a two-tier system in middle schools.”

As policymakers across the country have sought to raise standards in math, they have also encouraged schools to teach algebra earlier. From 1996 to 2005, the proportion of students nationwide who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade rose to 34 percent from 27 percent, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But the controversy in California underscores the contrasting views of business advocates, who see tougher math and science standards as crucial to the United States’ international competitiveness, and educators and others who say some of those goals are unrealistic and ignore the complexity of working with students who need more help.

After the board’s vote, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backed the new requirement, cited the support of several business organizations, including California Business for Education Excellence, and the California Business Roundtable. Business leaders are convinced that the state’s workforce will suffer without boosting the state’s math requirements, said Matthew M. Gardner, the president and chief executive officer of BayBio, an association representing more than 400 Northern California life-sciences companies with 60,000 employees.

“The industry’s view is that California’s science and math education is falling behind,” Mr. Gardner said. “We should expect more from the kids in our school system and from the system itself.”

Others, however, say the state faces a daunting task. State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who opposed the policy, pointed out that just 23 percent of students who take the state’s 8th grade test of general math skills—not its Algebra 1 test—reached proficiency on that easier exam. Only 13 percent of African-American and 16 percent of Hispanic students met that mark, Mr. O’Connell noted.

Last year, California officials were so troubled by their students’ 8th grade algebra woes that they approved 11 separate “algebra readiness” programs for adoption, meaning districts can use state funds to buy them. Those remedial programs target students who are well below grade level in math, in an effort to raise their math skills quickly. (“Catching Up on Algebra,” April 23, 2008.)

Responding to NCLB

Before the new mandate was approved, California recommended, but did not require, students to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. California officials approved the new policy after the U.S. Department of Education determined that the state’s testing system was out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act. To that point, California had been giving an end-of-course Algebra 1 exam to 8th graders who had been enrolled in that course, and a general math test, based on grade 6 and 7 standards, to students who were not.

Some California officials, including Mr. O’Connell, said the state should come into compliance by revising its general math test to include some algebra content, which would give districts flexibility to work with struggling students who were not ready for the full Algebra 1 exam. But the state board, with Gov. Schwarzenegger’s support, rejected that option and instead voted to require that all 8th graders take the Algebra 1 test.

The governor noted that since 2003, the percentage of California 8th graders taking algebra has increased from 34 percent to 52 percent today. Given that progress, the state was justified in raising expectations on students, he argued.

“To do otherwise,” the governor wrote to the board before its vote, “would lower our expectations and continue to divide our children between those we believe in and those we leave behind.”

The governor said he was committed to providing schools with more resources to help them meet the mandate. But Mr. O’Connell questioned how likely that is, saying districts across the state are already being forced to cut academic programs because of California’s ongoing budget crisis. The state is struggling to close a $17 billion deficit for fiscal 2009.

It remains unclear how California districts, particularly those with large numbers of 8th graders who are struggling in math, will respond to the mandate. Meeting the requirement in three years “is a tough, tough job,” said Phil Quon, the superintendent of the Cupertino Union district, a 17,000-student K-8 system south of San Francisco. To put every student in 8th grade algebra, he said, “is a total disservice to the kid.”

Mr. Quon said the state would need to help schools revamp math instruction in early grades and introduce algebra “in a more concrete way” with those students.

State board member Kenneth Noonan, who voted for the new policy, suggested some districts will use algebra-readiness materials to supplement Algebra 1 courses for struggling students. He agreed that state funding will be necessary, particularly in retraining current math teachers, because the state’s teacher colleges, on their own, could not churn out enough new educators to meet the mandate. “To get them to produce more teachers overnight, it will not happen,” Mr. Noonan said.

California currently has about 3,300 middle school Algebra 1 teachers, according to the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning, a nonprofit group that focuses on improving teaching. To meet the mandate, the state will have to double that number over the next three years through new hires and retraining, Margaret Gaston, the president and executive director of the Santa Cruz, Calif., organization, estimated.

Better Preparation

Despite that nationwide push to teach introductory algebra earlier, Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, a member of the national math panel, said policymakers should resist forcing students into Algebra 1 before they are ready. Mr. Fennell, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, noted that the math panel’s final report recommended that schools move more students into 8th grade algebra—but only if they had received thorough preparation in whole numbers, fractions, and other concepts.

“I’m all about raising standards, but I wouldn’t want to legislate that every 8th grader take a course in Algebra 1,” Mr. Fennell said of the California requirement. When it comes to that course, he added, “we need to provide access—to kids who are ready.”

Another member of the math panel, Russell M. Gersten, agreed, saying California officials would be better off focusing on math preparation in early grades and making sure that courses called “algebra” offer authentic algebra. Mr. Gersten is a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and the executive director of the Instructional Research Group, a nonprofit research institute specializing in education topics in Signal Hill, Calif.

“The reality is that a lot of kids fail algebra,” Mr. Gersten said. “If anything, [that] makes them math-aversive.”

But Mr. Mitchell and others are convinced that California schools can help students meet the higher standard in the years ahead. Employers and the public will continue to seek high expectations for schools, and the state must do its part, he said.

“We’ve been doing a terrific job of getting more kids into algebra,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We see this less as a hammer than as urging the state to get across the finish line.” He added: “The good news is we’ve never heard this level of conversation about what it will take.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Experts Question Calif.'s Algebra Edict


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