College & Workforce Readiness

The Four-Year Plan

By Sean Cavanagh — January 06, 2009 10 min read
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Robin Gray teaches algebra in a state that was an early leader in setting demanding requirements in high school math. She spends part of each day working with students who are struggling to keep up.

One of her classes is Algebra 1-A. The 9th grade course eases students into the subject slowly, presenting them with more basic material than they would receive in traditional Algebra 1. It’s an approach that Ms. Gray and fellow teachers at Jemison High School here say is essential for those teenagers to succeed in algebra before moving on to geometry and, ideally, more advanced math.

“We may have to slow down their pace, but they become great math students when they’re done,” Ms. Gray said during a break from class. “A lot of the time, it’s a maturity issue,” she said of her students. “They just need another year with algebra.”

In 1996, Alabama officials approved the “4 x 4” plan, which made their state the first in the country to require students to complete four years, or four credits each, of math and science for high school graduation. Other states have since followed suit, with policymakers arguing that higher standards are necessary to gird students for increasing demands from colleges and employers and to cultivate a capable workforce.

Alabama officials decided last year to set an even loftier goal: All entering 9th graders in 2009 must pursue an “advanced” diploma, meaning they have to complete Algebra 2, including trigonometry content, unless their families let them opt out of that mandate. That requirement will mean that Alabama, which has traditionally lagged near the bottom of all states on national tests of academic progress, has established one of the more demanding math standards in the country.

Yet Alabama’s experience with its 4 x 4 plan underscores the challenges states face in implementing such requirements. Different public schools in the state have taken very different approaches to meeting the mandates, depending on such factors as course scheduling and the needs of their student populations.

In some Alabama schools, students meet the four-year requirement by taking at least one math and science class each year, 9th through 12th grades. In schools that use block scheduling, students take extended classes lasting about 100 minutes. They receive one credit for a half-year of classwork. That allows some students to complete four years of math and science in two or three academic years. In some schools, students may not to take math during certain half-year terms, as long as they are progressing toward obtaining the necessary four credits before graduation.

The latter approach in math classes is used at Jemison High School, which serves a mixed-income population in a rural community about an hour south of Birmingham. Students take math courses in 96-minute blocks, twice the length of classes in many schools.

All students at Jemison begin their 9th grade math studies in a program called Algebra for Mastery. They are tested every 4½ weeks; students who perform better move at a faster clip through algebra, while those having difficulty are assigned to slower-paced classes, such as Algebra 1-A.

Under Jemison High’s block scheduling, students can complete the state’s four-credit math requirement by the end of sophomore year. About half of graduating seniors in 2008, however, voluntarily followed an advanced-math curriculum, school records show.

Junior Robby Winegard said he never considered following an easier path. He said he’s thinking of majoring in chemistry at Auburn University, so taking advanced math seemed like necessary preparation. He was enrolled in Algebra 2 last fall and planned to take Algebra 3 and precalculus, too.

Students in Robin Gray’s advanced geometry class at Jamison High School work on a geometry and statistics project. Ms. Gray has made extensive use of resources from a statewide program, called AMSTI, in her math classes.

“I wanted to be able to test myself,” the 16-year-old said. “I know I’m capable of it.”

Ms. Gray said block scheduling allows her to spend much more time on math topics for students unable to grasp the concepts than she otherwise might. That was evident one day last fall, as she handed back graded tests to students in her Algebra 1-A class. Some of the 14 students notched scores of 100, but others scored in the 80s or lower.

Working with an electronic drawing pad that projects images on a board at the front of the room, Ms. Gray focused on the most troublesome items, for which she called on students to graph points and slopes on the x and y axes. In a traditional Algebra 1 class, Ms. Gray might be forced to press ahead to the next topic, she said, without as much time for review.

Students in Algebra 1-A “are given a second chance at the material,” she said, rather than just “sliding by.”

Placement the Key

At Pelham High School, roughly 30 miles north of Jemison, the approach to meeting the state’s four-year math requirement is different. Classes at the 1,500-student school are 50 minutes long, and students must take math in each of their four years in high school to graduate. The strongest-performing freshman at Pelham, who have taken Algebra 1 in 8th grade, typically take a geometry class as 9th graders. Others are put in Algebra 1 or Algebra 1-A, based on their math performance as middle schoolers, as well as teacher and parent recommendations. After the school year begins, those students can be moved up, into Algebra 1, or back to Algebra 1-A, Pam Hand, a math teacher at Pelham High, explained in an e-mail.

“We have to watch them very closely as 9th graders,” said Keri Ross, another math teacher there. “Are they doing well in algebra, or do we have to back them down?”

It’s not surprising that Alabama’s schools and districts take dissimilar approaches to meeting the state’s four-year math requirement, said Uri Treisman, who directs the Charles A. Dana Center, a research institution at the University of Texas at Austin. Schools across the country are scrambling to come up with ways to comply with rising state math requirements by using a variety of scheduling methods and curricula, said Mr. Treisman, whose center works with school officials in Texas and around the country.

While he called Alabama schools’ multiple approaches “an understandable administrative response” to the state’s requirement, Mr. Treisman said he and many academic researchers prefer that students take a year of math every year throughout their high school careers, rather than being allowed to take a semester or a year away from that subject. Staying connected to the subject throughout high school increases students’ chances of surviving college-level math, he said.

But Mr. Treisman also praised Alabama officials for attempting to hold all students to a high standard.

“The courses they’re talking about used to be the domain of the privileged few,” Mr. Treisman said. “They want to democratize access to math courses,” he added, even if that fosters a difficult “transition period” for many schools.

In the years since Alabama adopted its 4 x 4 plan, many states have raised their demands in math. Today, 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have established or are phasing in requirements for four years of high school math, according to the Education Commission of the States, a research organization in Denver.

States have also pressed for more course-specific standards in math. Four years ago, only two states had adopted requirements that students take Algebra 2 or its equivalent to graduate with a regular diploma; 20 states plus the District of Columbia have established that mandate today, with many of those states phasing those policies in over the next several years, according to Achieve, a Washington-based organization that promotes higher academic standards. In many of the states, parents may sign a waiver that will allow their child to graduate without completing Algebra 2.

Alabama’s state board of education has also raised the bar with its First Choice plan. That policy will require incoming 9th graders to pursue an advanced high school endorsement—unless a parent agrees to let them out—beginning this fall.

Just 39 percent of seniors in Alabama’s 2006 graduating class voluntarily followed an advanced high school curriculum, state schools Superintendent Joseph B. Morton said. Such numbers are higher in affluent districts, but they dip into the single digits in many poor, rural areas, a disparity Mr. Morton described as “an atrocity.”

In districts where parents’ level of education is low, families have been less likely to demand that their children pursue the advanced high school path, Mr. Morton said. As a result, the choice of a curriculum has typically been put “in the hands of a 14-year-old,” not an appealing prospect, the schools chief added. First Choice seeks to reverse those expectations, and make the more challenging academic path the norm, he said.

The message to students is that “we’re banking on you to do better, and you can do better,” Mr. Morton said in an interview. “It’s a plan to make a really large shift in the [lives] of students.”

While some Alabama schools allow students to complete the state’s four-year math requirement by attaining the necessary credits in two or three years, that is not typical, said Cynthia C. Brown, the director of curriculum and instruction for the state education department. She also said she believes most schools are requiring students to take science their junior and senior years. State policy gives schools discretion in establishing their own course schedules, as long as they meet state requirements, Ms. Brown said.

Implementing First Choice would not be possible, Mr. Morton said, if the state had not laid a foundation by establishing a number of programs aimed at increasing students’ access to high-quality math and science courses.

State Investments

One of those efforts is Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide, or ACCESS, a state virtual-learning program that seeks to help high schools across the state, particularly in rural areas, establish “labs” to run online classes and interactive video technology. Launched in 2006, ACCESS seeks to increase isolated and understaffed schools’ connections to Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment course offerings in math, science, foreign languages, and other subjects. The goal is to have a lab in every high school by the 2010-11 school year.

Alabama also has one of the largest and most ambitious state-run math and science programs in the country, the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative. Schools that send teachers and administrators to professional-development programs are given AMSTI designation; they get help from roving math and science specialists who provide classroom support, and free access to math- and science-classroom equipment, available at 11 regional offices around the state.

Business and university officials have urged on those state efforts. For too long, Alabama only produced students with top-notch math and science skills “in various pockets around the state,” said Charles R. Nash, who chairs the Alabama Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Education Coalition, an advocacy group of education and business officials.

Alabama’s economy has shifted from an agricultural and textile base to one served by automobile, space and technology, maritime, and new manufacturing interests, said Mr. Nash, who is also vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Alabama System. To prepare students for the new jobs, “we couldn’t wait until [students] got to middle or high school,” Mr. Nash said. “We had to start earlier.”

Even with the state’s efforts, getting high school students into an advanced math curriculum is a challenge, partly because they arrive with very different academic backgrounds. At Pelham High School, the vast majority show up as 9th graders having taken some kind of prealgebra course in middle school. Still, their preparation for algebra varies enormously, said Ms. Hand, a math teacher at the school. Ninth graders who take Algebra 1 or geometry are more likely to move on to advanced math, she said.

Some of Alabama’s schools are moving to put more students into an advanced curriculum, even before First Choice goes into effect.

Until recently, only about 20 percent of the 580 students at Bibb County High School, located in a rural community southwest of Birmingham, voluntarily followed an advanced academic path, according to school estimates. In an attempt to change that situation, students in the two most recent entering 9th grade classes were automatically put on an advanced track, unless their parents signed an opt-out form.

So far, nearly all of parents and students, with encouragement from school officials, are sticking with the advanced path, said Kimberly Partridge, a curriculum and instruction specialist who works with the school.

“We talk to them,” said Lee VanFleet, Bibb County High’s principal. “We counsel them. The vast majority of parents have very high expectations for their children.”

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 January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Four-Year Plan


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