California's Algebra 1 Mandate for 8th Graders

Jennifer Dounay, Sherry Skelly Griffith, and Loren Kaye discuss the implications of testing all California 8th graders on introductory algebra concepts and concerns regarding algebra readiness.

July 30, 2008

California’s Algebra 1 Mandate for 8th Graders

  • Jennifer Dounay is a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. As manager of the ECS High School Policy Center since 2005, Dounay has tracked numerous state policy issues related to high school reform, including changes to high school graduation requirements in math and science.
  • Sherry Skelly Griffith is a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators, which represents more than 16,000 principals, curriculum and assessment directors and other top district officials across that state. She represents the ACSA before the California state board of education. Her organization has voiced concerns about the impact that the new 8th grade algebra testing requirement will have on California schools and students.
  • Loren Kaye is the president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for business interests on a variety of workforce and education issues. Mr. Kaye has previously served in senior policy positions for California Governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian. His organization has voiced support for the new 8th grade algebra testing requirement in California.

Sean Cavanagh (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s Education Week chat about the state of California’s new requirement that students be tested in algebra in 8th grade. In our most recent issue, I wrote about this mandate and some of the controversy it has generated in California. California officials approved the algebra policy at a time when states across the country are increasing requirements in math and science, often at the urging of business and industry leaders. We’re joined today by Jennifer Dounay, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States; Loren Kaye, of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education; and Sherry Skelly Griffith, of the Association of California School Administrators. This is a topic that has drawn strong interest from policymakers, educators, and business leaders, so let’s get started.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Faculty, Wilmington University & Principal, Retired (MD/DE):

To mandate that all 8th grade students take introductory algebra in 8th grade is a necessary vision for the future since success in mathematics has become a gatekeeper for students’ future success in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, many elementary school teachers are weak in teaching prerequisite algebra math skills. What is the professional development plan, if any thought has been given to this need, to better prepare elementary teachers in teaching the prerequisite skills for student success in introductory algebra in 8th grade?

Loren Kaye:

No question that one of the primary stumbling blocks to student success in 8th grade Algebra 1 is math preparation in the earlier grades; California’s math problem snowballs with each succeeding elementary grade level. While proficiency in math in grades 2 to 4 is in the high 50 percents, that drops to the high 30s in 7th grade. There’s no shortage of credentialed teachers, but we believe state leaders should eliminate the cap on professional development training for upper elementary and Algebra 1 standards, as well as create a set of standards by which all professional development providers will be evaluated to ensure consistency and quality. We should also evaluate the pool of “approved” programs to either recruit more professional development providers or ensure the regulations are not discouraging otherwise qualified professionals.

Question from Cheryl Jaffe - Radar Engineer, Math Teacher, Proud Parent:

I’m in favor of 8th grade Algebra, but I can’t imagine students will be successful in Algebra in any grade unless they are adequately prepared for it. I believe that Arithmetic can be exceptional preparation for Algebra *if* Elementary teachers understand the connections well enough to emphasize the skills that will transfer to Algebra over the convenience skills that don’t transfer well. Will California be shoring up preparation for Algebra, or just mandating that students take it earlier and then hoping for the best?

Loren Kaye:

Early attention and high expectations in elementary grades are the key to success in middle school Algebra. Recently, the Public Policy Institute of California found that Grade 4 student characteristics predict passage on the California high school exit exam almost as well as those from grade 9. To break the cycle of failure, we need high expectations beginning in elementary school, implement best practices learned from high performing, comparable schools that are raising math proficiency, and implementing a coherent and aligned instructional program and focused, clear goals for student academic proficiency that is measured on a regular basis.

Question from Sean Cavanagh:

Loren: Despite what mathematicians and math educators might say, sometimes the public at large question why algebra is important at all, in terms of helping people succeed in life and on the job. In your view, what does the ability to perform algebra, or algebraic thinking generally, bring to a student, in terms of his or her ability to succeed in life, or on the job?

Loren Kaye:

Algebra is about problem solving and critical thinking. Let’s be clear: I’ve never used the quadratic equation in my career as a public policy professional, but learning algebra was probably the first time that I was subjected to disciplined, critical analysis of a problem, and forced to systematically apply rules to solving that problem. This is a gateway to critical thinking, pivotal for success - not only in science and technology and engineering - but in any field that requires disciplined approach to getting the job done. Which is to say, any field that is high skilled and high reward.

Question from Sean Cavanagh:

Jennifer: Regarding increasing state requirements in math: Can you describe what steps, if any, states around the nation have taken in recent years to increase support for remedial math and math-intervention programs, to help students who are not keeping up in subjects such as algebra?

Jennifer Dounay:

Online programs are allowing students to catch up on targeted math skills. Some states (including Louisiana and Alabama) have revised state policies to allow districts to offer targeted credit recovery programs that provide flexibility while ensuring quality. For example, Alabama’s May 2008 rulemaking (1) Requires course content for credit recovery courses to focus on standards in which students fell short rather than all standards of the original course; (2) Allows schools to offer these courses using computer software, online instruction, or teacher-directed instruction. (3) Requires the curriculum to align with state board courses of study content standards in which students need help.

A 2007 Louisiana state board rule revision allows students who have failed a course to take a proficiency exam for that course, and also set parameters allowing districts to offer “self-paced” and “competency-based” credit recovery programs to students who have taken and failed a course. Question from Sean Cavanagh:

What general trends have you seen across the states over the past decade, in terms of state requirements in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2?

Jennifer Dounay:

A small but growing number of states are specifying that students must complete Algebra I by end of grade 9. Whereas Achieve found in their 2004 study that high school exit exams in 6 states by and large tested relatively low mathematics content, Algebra I end-of-course exams--with some of these as exit exams--are becoming more widespread in the states. And while statewide Algebra II exams were a rarity earlier this decade, Achieve’s common Algebra II end-of-course plus individual state initiatives have put state-level Algebra II tests (either voluntary or mandatory) in place in at least 15 states.

Question from Sean Cavanagh:


When you hear from business and industry leaders in California, what are they telling you about the math skills that the state’s students are going to need to fill jobs in technology, engineering, and other areas in the years to come? Loren Kaye:

We will need highly educated workers throughout the state’s economy. The shift toward service-related industries from manufacturing will increase demand for college-educated workers. Over 40 percent of workers today in the fast-growing services industry have a college degree (a bachelor’s or higher graduate degree). In manufacturing, the share of workers with a college degree is 28 percent. In nearly all major industries the share of workers with a college degree has increased over the past decade. If this trend continues, employment projections suggest that the share of workers with a college degree would need to increase from 30 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2020.

Question from Sean Cavanagh:

For Jennifer: California is not the only state to have pressed for higher math standards in recent years. Please describe the general trend you’ve seen across states, over the past decade or so, in terms of requirements for Algebra 1 and Algebra 2.

Jennifer Dounay:

Over the last 5-10 years, a number of states have established requirements that all students complete Algebra I, such that states that don’t require Algebra I of all high school graduates are now in the minority. Only recently have states begun to include Algebra II in the default high school curriculum--Texas, effective with the Class of 2008 is the first. By 2015, some 15 states will require all high school graduates to complete Algebra II. And Alabama appears to be the first state, effective with a May 2008 state board rule adoption, that will include “Algebra II with Trigonometry” in the default high school curriculum, effective with the Class of 2013.

Question from Bob Stein, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, California State U, San Bernardino:

I was on the Framework Revision Committee in 1997 that recommended algebra for grade 8. The entire committee realized that it would take several years of work to implement that recommendation. But there were never enough resources, time, or planning to carry out that recommendation, and algebra in grade 8 became a source of frustration and failure in our schools. Is there any reason to believe we will do better this time?

Sherry Griffith:

Dr. Stein: First let me thank you for your work on the first standards based K-12 Mathematics Framework in California. We share your concern that planning, resources and time were not taken into account when the State Board and Governor made this decision. In particular it is counter to the action of the State Board in November of 2007 when they approved 11 Alebra Readiness programs for students who are not fully prepared for a full Algebra I course. If the only test that will count to ensure middle schools meet NCLB accountability provisions and escape serious sanctions is the Algebra I test what incentive do schools have to use the Algebra Readiness programs? There is also concern with the fact you will need to recruit, train and retrain thousands of teachers and somehow find the time in the current instructional day to expand math, no doubt at the expense of other subjects including science, history social science, foreign language, career tech courses, music, PE, the arts and possibly English language arts. We are concerned that there was no thoughtful plan associated with this mandate. We plan to join with other education groups in California to pencil out what a capacity building plan will take in time, people and resources.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initiative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

What mathematics course will students take if they do not pass algebra in the 8th grade?

Sherry Griffith:

Jesch: California authorizes local governing boards to determine courses. If a student does not pass Algebra I in the 8th grade they will likely repeat the course in 9th grade.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initiative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

Are there strategies in place or a remediation/differentiation plan at each grade level for students who won’t be ready to take algebra by the 8th grade?

Sherry Griffith:

Jesch: No. The State Board did not include multiple pathways or Algebra Readiness in their recent actions to mandate that the Algebra I test is the “sole test” used in 8th grade. No other test will count in the accountability system. Schools currently do differentiate by using formative assessments and then making appropriate placement. For example they may place an 8th grade student in a Algebra Readiness class or a Algebra A & B two year course. These options will be severly curtailed because the school is expected to test all students in Algebra I whether they have been exposed or learned the content of Alegbra I.

Question from Sean Cavanagh:


How much resistance have you seen in states to efforts to increase math and science requirements? And what is the general source of this resistance? Is it concerns about schools having enough resources to support new requirements, or is there another objection to these mandates? Jennifer Dounay:

I think it would be safe to say that in any state that has broached the topic of raising math and science graduation requirements--much less successfully pushed through legislation or state board rules--it has been a contentious issue. Resistance tends to come from multiple sources--other state policymakers, local administrators, school staff, sometimes students and parents.

The most common concerns are... included in an ECS policy brief that will hopefully be released in the first part of August. I don’t want to give too much away, but common concerns include schools having enough resources (teachers as well as material resources) as well as concerns about outcomes to students--that more students will drop out, that students will miss out or be denied career/technical education, foreign language, the arts if they take more units of math and/or science, etc.

Who we don’t typically see resistance from is the business community, who feel that students are entering the workforce inadequately prepared for life after school.

Question from Karen Fernandez, teacher, Denver Public Schools:

My district started requiring algebra in the 8th grade a couple of years ago. As an language arts teacher I am definitely an outsider looking in where math curricula are concerned; however, I can’t help noticing that the algebra our middle school kids take is not the algebra I took nearly 40 years ago as a 9th grader. I remember factoring polynomials and solving quadratic equations yet I don’t see operations at this level of sophistication in our district’s 8th grade algebra--so I’m wondering if this trend to introduce the subject earlier in a student’s career is a change in name only. Has the age of the students changed, or has the nature of algebra changed?

Loren Kaye:

Unfortunately, algebra is not the same everywhere. For its part, California pulled together the best minds in mathematics to design the Algebra 1 standards, which are internationally recognized and internationally competitive.

Question from Dr. Janet D. McMiller, Retired School Administrator:

First, I believe that school quality and student learning must be based on multiple measures and indicators not based primarily on test scores. Nationally, have accountability systems successfully identified schools in need of assistance and provided a system of effective interventions to help them succeed? What are some of the most effective interventions in support of schools moving towards 100% proficiency in 2014?

Jennifer Dounay:

Dr. McMiller: NCLB has a graduated support and intervention system called “Program Improvement” in which schools over the course of five years are expected to implement reforms and use Title I funds to do so. In California we do not have aggregate data that identifies which reforms are the most effective. The focus in California is on closing the achievement gap between and within subgroups. This takes a diverse set of strategies from quality teacher professional development to cultural awareness in the classroom. Sometimes it may involve putting the right principal leader in a school or it may involve negotiating a longer school day with a local teacher’s union or quality after school programs. It really depends on the school and school district.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initiative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

Will California use a uniform curriculum for algebra? If so, what instructional materials will be used?

Sherry Griffith:

Jesch: In California we teach to the content standards and our K-8 instructional materials are aligned to those standards. The standards are voluntary however the California Standards Tests are aligned to grade level standards to ensure that they are taught. School districts are required to purchase K-8 instructional materials off an “approved adoption” list. School districts will need to purchase from the choices offered by publishers for Algebra I. It’s unlikely they will purchase any other materials for their 8th grade students given the funding is to be used for these materials only. Some will argue they will buy the Algebra Readiness materials because they have been approved by the State Board however no funding was provided to purchase both Algebra I and Algebra Readiness and with the new test mandate this may impact local choices.

Question from Peggy Kroll, Director Early College, Modesto Junior College:

Will the trend be to require more math to earn a high school diploma? We find that students end with 2 years of Algebra and one year of Geometry by Grade 10. When they graduate from high school two years later and enter college they need to remediate and repeat Algebra again in college.

Jennifer Dounay:

It is for this reason (well, and others) that more states are requiring students to take four years of math in high school. Some states (Indiana is one example, effective with the Class of 2010) specify that if a student earned math credit before grade 9, that credit may count as elective credit but not Carnegie units toward graduation.

This is not to discourage students from taking Algebra I in 8th grade--but does allow students to reach the trigonometry, precalculus, calculus that Cliff Adelman’s research indicates a student is significantly more likely to finish high school, enter a four-year institution, and complete a bachelor’s degree within a reasonable amount of time. And the ACT “college readiness benchmark” also notes that students whose high school math coursetaking culminates above Algebra II are much more likely to be ready for College Algebra than those whose coursetaking ends with Algebra II.

Not to mention that even in those states that will stick with two or three units math for high school graduation, it’s a good idea to incorporate math instruction in career/technical courses--keep the math muscles flexed until students enter college or the workforce.

Question from Brad Huff, Chair, California Curriculum Correlating Council:

Eighth Grade Algebra: A GRIM Fairy Tale

In the Third International Math and Science Study the island nation of Singapore cleaned our clocks in math. If those college-bound children of affluent, college educated parents can learn algebra in eighth grade, all California kids should be able to learn algebra in eighth grade, too. Right?


Only if our demographics match those of Singapore. Which they do not!

The reality is that abstract learning [not memorizing] requires a level of mental maturation that may or may not have developed by eighth grade.

Requiring every 13 year old child in California to take an algebra course and pass an algebra test is like lowering the minimum height bar at an amusement park ride and watching children fly out of the ride. NOT EVERYONE IS READY TO UNDERSTAND ALGEBRA AT AGE 13.

The federal No Child Left Behind is only pushing California to make algebra mandatory in grade 8 because a Stanford professor wrote our math standards.

Time to change the standards, not play make-believe.

Or do you believe that all 13 year olds are ready to understand algebra? Loren Kaye:

I want to be careful here, but certainly you’re not suggesting that California’s more “demographically diverse” students are less mentally mature than those in Singapore? Most (say, 95%) 13-year-olds are developmentally ready to learn algebra - but they may not be prepared to learn algebra, which is the key policy challenge for California leaders. How can we ensure that these children have achieved proficiency in 2nd, 3rd, 4th ... 7th grade math so that when they are in 8th grade, they are ready to learn algebra. But I’m not prepared to reduce California’s expectations and accept that Singaporean children are - because of their racial or cultural or economic condition - more mentally mature than California kids.

Question from Karl Kingan Library Information Specialist El Paso Public Library:

Do you believe that children rise to the expectations that they are presented with? If so do you expect greeat things from mediocre students whith what results?

Loren Kaye:

Yes; of course. That’s the basic principle - but only the start. What makes the difference is classroom instruction. There are already schools in California with very challenging demographics that are getting high percentages of students to pass the Algebra I test at 8th grade. They start with setting high expectations.

For example, Lee Mathson Middle School in Alum Rock, is 100% Free/Reduced School Lunch, 54% EL has 100% of their 8th graders taking Algebra I and they got 92% of those students to proficiency. We need to spend more time learning from these schools who are being successful and less time making excuses for why students can’t do Algebra. The key is preparation in those lower grades, high quality middle school Algebra teachers and effective classroom instruction.

Question from Carole Bannes, NSSEA Member:

Not a question, but rather a comment. IF students were exposed in earlier grades to basic mathematical reasoning and problem solving rather than to only drill and practice exercises, they would (1) find mathematics more interesting and (2) be prepared for basic algebra by 6th grade. So long as you fail to recognize this, teaching them “algebra” won’t work at any level except for those few students who innately “get it” that mathematics is simply a puzzle to be worked out by applying reasoning.

Loren Kaye:

And you are right, if students so exposed in the earlier grades are reaching grade level proficiency in math in elementary school. They they’ll be prepared for 8th grade algebra 1.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initiative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

What criteria must be met for students to pass algebra?

Sherry Griffith:

Jesch: The authority to determine course requirements and grading is with the local governing board of a school district and the principals and teachers of the school and school district. Teachers will continue to provide a grade to each student in Algebra I. As for the Algebra I test the proficiency levels will are determined by a “cut score” which will identify a student as Far Below Basic, Below Basic, Basic, Proficient or Advanced. NCLB will only count students on the Algebra I test who are at the “Proficient” or “Advanced” levels. Therefore you could be doing really well with your students and moving them up towards proficiency in Algebra I but if you miss the bar percentage you may trigger into Program Improvement. So the punitive aspects is built into NCLB and then on top of that the State Board has made it even a higher bar where all students whether they are prepared or not will have to take the Algebra I test.

Question from Laura Denne, music teacher, Ojai Unified schools, Ojai, CA:

With elective classes already at a premium, manditory algebra at 8th grade will gobble up an elective chorus or instrumental music class for many of those students who find themselves needing to enroll in an additional “math lab” to simply pass the algebra course. Why NOT wait until 9th grade, or pre-algebra at 8th for those not fully prepared? Please respond.

Jennifer Dounay:

While Alabama and Louisiana are offering flexible options for credit recovery at the high school level, I’m not sure as many states have looked at establishing similar policies at the middle grades. If middle grades “math labs” are offered on a flexible basis (focusing just on the specific skills students are deficient in, offered online or in summer session), it seems schools should have no excuse not to offer both--chorus and instrumental music during the school day, and tutorials outside the school day/school year.

Waiting until 9th grade to take algebra reduces the odds that students will complete much coursework beyond Algebra II (see my earlier post on significant outcomes for students whose high school mathtaking culminates above Algebra II), and holds back those students who are ready for Algebra in grade 8. And Sean did a great story in April (“Catching Up on Algebra”) that makes clear that middle grades math content can easily incorporate algebra or pre-algebra concepts, reducing the need for “math lab” when students reach algebra in grade 8.

Question from Christine Grasso, Senior Marketing Manager, Peoples Education:

What types of programs will schools be looking for to help them prepare for this test?

Sherry Griffith:

Christine: Given there is no additional funding associated with the test mandate we assume they school districts will use their limited Instuctional Material Funds for Algebra I books and if they have additional funds they may purchase some Algebra Readiness materials. The big challenge is every school distict with K-8 grades is saving up for the big and very expensive Reading/Language Arts Adoption in November 2008. In California we are mandated to purchase these materials within 24 months of their adoption. We are very dissappointed in the Governor and State Board for not building out a capacity plan to go along with this new mandate. School Districts cannot afford two sets of books when only one test counts.

Question from Marty Barrios, Administrator, Virgil Middle School:

Will there be additional funding to train all 8th grade math teachers to teach Algebra? What about support to students not meeting Alg standards? Will there be support to fund intervention?

Loren Kaye:

First, since 2003, the number of 8th graders taking Algebra 1 has increased from 34% to 52%, compared with just 30% of 8th graders nationwide. And nearly 40% of our 8th graders taking algebra are passing at proficient or advanced levels. So obviously many 8th grade math teachers are trained to teach Algebra.

But of course, not all are trained, and many are insufficiently competent to teach algebra, so the question is pertinent. While the Governor did not commit to new funding in his letter supporting the standard and testing, he did acknowledge that “the high standard will require an intense commitment and increased investment in the resources for schools and the professional development of our teacher corps.” I have no inside information, but I’d be surprised if there were not a beefed-up effort by the Governor and Legislature on this.

Question from Vicki Templet, parent, Johns Creek, GA:

I am the parent of a child who tested consistently in the 98+% in math and thus promoted to take Algebra as a 7th grader, Geometery in 8th grade, which he handled with high Bs. By his freshmen year, we had no option to have him repeat a math course, but he was not truly mastering Algebra. By 9th grade, he was grouped with 11th graders taking Algebra II and he was lost, getting low Bs. By 10th grade Adv. Algebra Trig, he could barely get a low C. Now as a 11th grader, he doesn’t qualify to continue in Calculus, and he has two more years of high school with no options for math. If we are really considering accelerating the math curriculum, are we ready with a safety net to catch those who are not cognitively developed enough to handle the thinking skills required for upper level math that is by nature, much less concrete? It is been the demise of my once-successful math student.

Loren Kaye:

In your son’s specific case, it is unfortunate that your school wasn’t able to meet his specific needs. It seems a simple solution that he should have been allowed to remediate Algebra in the 8th or 9th grades if he truly wasn’t ready to move on. A more telling measure of his readiness than grades would have been his proficiency level on the Algebra I CST in 7th grade or the Geometry CST in 8th grade. If those tests showed that he wasn’t ready, he shouldn’t have been advanced. Unfortunately, your school didn’t provide the remediation that your student needed.

Question from Linda Fenner, Consultant, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow:

TIMSS suggests that in the countries where students do very well in high school math the middle school curriculum often gives students the content of first-year algebra integrated over three years. Is this a model that California is considering, why or why not?

Sherry Griffith:

Linda: Frankly academic considerations and models were not considered by the State Board prior to their vote on the mandate. Our Association proposed a “multiple pathways” model which would ensure students are placed in one of three courses similar to the concept you mention. We recommended that a required formative assessment be given to all 6th and 7th grade students and then students would be appropriately placed based on “readiness” in one of three courses in 8th grade - 1) Algebra Readiness, 2) Fundamentals of Algebra (some Algebra I standards) or 3) Algebra I. This was rejected by the State Board and the business groups and some foundation groups (Ed Voice, CBEE, Ed Trust) who were part of the earlier discussions. We believe eventually California must go to such a model. Just like learning to read can be achieved within a age span (e.g. ages 4-9) we believe Algebra readiness is similar. It should be about student mastery not course taking with possibly poor results or, worse yet potential to turn a student off completely from the love of math.

Question from Lorin Wilson, Assistant Principal, Bayside STEM Academy:

If we want kids to take more higher math, do we have to mandate it? (Some kids may simply quit taking additional “advanced” high school math because they will have met the graduation requirements early in high school meaning a larger time gap between their math experience and college.)

Jennifer Dounay:

In some regard, yes. The Bridge Project research out of Stanford University indicates that many students are completely unaware that by fulfilling high school graduation requirements, they are not necessarily taking the courses four-year institutions require for admissions. And even those students planning to go to an “open admissions” postsecondary institution will need to take a math placement exam. Taking more advanced math--and taking math the last two years of high school--will reduce the odds that poor performance on math placement exams will force students to spend precious tuition dollars (and time to degree) on non-credit-bearing courses once they enter college.

So perhaps the best of all possible worlds is a closer alignment of high school/college expectations, clear and frequent communication to students and parents about four-year course requirements AND college placement exam requirements, and either incentivizing or requiring four years of math, so students are less likely to forget their “advanced” math during their senior year of high school. States might even look at incentivizing student participatin in college Algebra offered through dual enrollment--complete this academic core requirement before you even start college!

Question from Peg Cagle, math teacher, Lawrence Gifted Magnet:

At present 54% of California’s 8th graders are enrolled in Algebra, but only 38% of those students are successful on the state testing. What changes do you propose to ensure that all 8th graders are mastering the material when we move to 100% enrollment within the next 3 years?

Loren Kaye:

First, system-wide buy-in to the ethos of high expectations, as reflected in this Algebra 1 standard. Second, Increased investment in professional development of our teacher corps. Third, increase credentialed math coaches to train and counsel K-7 teachers. Fourth, improve the teacher pipeline to recruit more qualified and competent math teachers throughout our K-12 system. Fifth, implement best practices learned from high performing, comparable schools that are raising math proficiency for all of their students every year in each grade. This includes a focus on demanding high standards in every grade, a coherent and aligned instructional program and focused, clear goals for student academic proficiency that is measured on a regular basis.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

What role will assessments have in determining on-track readiness at the end of each grade level from K - 7?

Sherry Griffith:

Jesch - While our California Standards Tests (CSTs) in matematics grades 2-7 are not to be used “diagnostically” we believe you will see educators use the performance levels to some extent from those grades. For example, if a 7th grade student scored in the “Advanced” range on the 7th grade math CST they would be considered for Algebra I. If a student is scoring Below Basic there will be great concerns whether that student has mastered general math. School also use their own formative assessments to gage Algebra I readiness. The unfortunate aspect of the State Board’s recent decision to mandate the Algebra I CST for all 8th graders is the fear we will place unprepared students in courses they will not succeed in given they need additional time to grasp general math concepts. It will require the courage of local school districts to just tell the state and federal government they would rather do what is best for students and place them in the proper course rather rather than worry about the “shame and blame” associated with NCLB.

Question from Laurie Scheibner, math teacher, Truckee High School:

Since this new move seems to be industry-driven, will industry also help with funding for increasing success rates in mathematics at the 8th grade level and below ?

Loren Kaye:

Industry is a strong proponent because we are worried about the effects on our state’s economy of being uncompetitive, and on our society if we don’t provide a path to higher education or high-skilled employment for the vast number of our youth.

Philanthropic foundations such as Gates, Hewlett, Irvine, etc., contribute millions every year to public education, as do many corporate foundations and individual businesses. Other groups such as the California Business for Education Excellence Foundation ( identify high-performing schools every year that are helping their students outperform expectations, close achievement gaps and increase proficiency rates. These schools already know what needs to be done and one thing business leaders can do is help them share what they know. CBEEF’s Just for the Kids ( California provides free data and best practice resources to help schools improve in all subject areas and grades.

Business leaders are asking to help, they just need to be given the opportunities. Our success - and California’s future success - is dependent upon the “output” of our system of public education.

Question from

What ever happened to the great U.S. principle of “Education of all the children?” Seems the California Board has gone to implementing education for the selected few, rather than education of all. The algebra requirement will only increase dropouts and this is a well known result which the Board no dobut considered.

Loren Kaye:

Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. The Board was implementing a high expectations for all children, rather than Algebra for the affluent, and “general math” for the disadvantaged, black and brown.

The requirement won’t increase dropouts. Dropouts will only increase if the adults fail their responsibilities - providing resources, support, strategy, alignment, and high expectations. Question from Harvey Hoyo, Assistant Professor, National University, Costa Mesa California:

When dealing with 8th graders, why do many researchers view Algebra I as a “gateway class” to measure student access into higher education immediately after high school?

Jennifer Dounay:

Students who complete Algebra I--as 8th graders or 9th graders--are more likely to complete higher-level math coursework in high school. Students who are in pre-Algebra I in grade 9 may make it to Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II (course sequence required for admissions to many four-year postsecondary institutions) by the end of grade 12 but then again, may either decide to take their senior year off from math, or may not receive clear messages from their teachers, parents, counselors, others that this is the high school course sequence required by many four-year institutions. The Bridge Project research (Stanford University) makes clear that students who are in college prep/honors tracks get much clearer messages about courses required for college admissions than non-honors track students.

And see also the Adelman and ACT research on the math courses that put students on a trajectory for college success. It’s only after Algebra II that math coursetaking makes a significant impact.

Question from Jesch Reyes, Algebra Initative Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools:

Will students passing algebra receive high school credit? If so, how many math credits are required to graduate from high school?

Jennifer Dounay:

I have to confess I’m not familiar enough with the new California requirements to say whether 8th grade algebra will be able to count toward high school--or are you referring to states in general? In many states, students may count Algebra I taken in 8th grade for high school credit, though there are exceptions. In states that require all students to take an end-of-course test in Algebra I for high school graduation, a student would need to pass this test in grade 8 (no free pass).

The total number of units required in the states varies. If you haven’t already seen this, check I’d like to update this in the future to indicate where states do not allow math coursetaking before grade 9 to count toward high school graduation requirements, note where states specify courses that must be taken in grade 9, etc.

Question from Karl Pister, Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley:

Given the state of the budget in CA, how will it be possible to secure the resources required to bring thousands of new math teachers into the system and provide training for the multitude of unqualified persons currently teaching algebra in 8th grade?

Loren Kaye:

Don’t get me started. First, if we have a “multitude of unqualified persons currently teaching algebra in 8th grade,” shouldn’t we, um, replace them? That won’t take much in the way of new resources. But to your main point, sure, some new investments will have to be made to increase professional development and improve the pipeline of new math teachers coming into the system. How much that is and whether it’s new or redirected resources, I can’t answer. Remember, lots of schools with challenging demographics are already meeting this standard. But if it does cost money - and there are tangible results flowing - then it will be worth the new investment. And at least speaking for business in California, they are willing to support new funding for education as long as tangible results and an accountable system result.

Question from Lori Hamada, Mathematics Coordinator, Fresno County Office of Education:

Please comment on the Professional Development needs that you see for the next three years - grade levels and content.

Sherry Griffith:

Lori: We believe the professional development needs for current K-8 multiple subject teachers, middle school single subject teachers who are not teaching Algebra I, and the training of the estimated 1,800 to 2,200 new teachers needed across the state is overwhelming. It is unlikely to be achieved in three years. We believe there will need to take a “bottom up and top down” systemic approach to the way California credentials, trains, recruits and retains K-8 multiple subject and single subject teachers. This means not only professional development for 8th Grade Algebra I teachers but all K-7 teachers so that the algebric standards in grades K-7 are given a high priority in teaching and learning if they are not already. We believe a first step will be a need for massive funds to set up Algebra I SB 472 training for current and new teachers. We believe there will need to be policy discussions about differential pay to recruit math teachers. Professional develoment will need to include how to teach a diverse class of Algebra I students a various levels of readiness. Where will all of these new teachers come from? Will secondary teachers be willing to move to middle grades? Should the K-8 credential be modified? These are just some of the unanswered questions. We believe it will cost millions if there is the slightest chance this will succeed. We challenge the business community who claims this was a good move to invest in the outcomes with real funds. No business plan would have every been developed in the manner this mandate occurred.

Question from Julie Shively, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, Department of Education:

NCLB cannot mandate curriculum, it only requires that the testing match the standards. Why did CA choose the change the testing instead of the standards?

Loren Kaye:

So far, California has resisted the temptation to fall into the trap of other states, who rather than following the intent of NCLB and rising to meet expectations are simply lowering the expectations in order to fool the public into thinking that student achievement is actually improving. While your solution of lowering the standards meets the letter of the Federal requirements, it simply doesn’t serve our students or our state well. The State Board made the right decision of maintaining our high standards and giving schools additional incentives to step up classroom instruction to meet these new requirements.

Question from Julie Shively, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, Department of Education:

How much vertical teaming is done between elementary and middle school math teachers so that the elementary teachers truly understand why they are teaching things such as the various properties, factoring, roots, etc?

Sherry Griffith:

Julie - Good question. It depends whether it is a K-8 school or a 6-8 middle school. There is vertical teaming done in many K-8 and middle schools however there is no guarantee its happening. Its likely this mandate will create a greater level of communication which is always positive.

Question from S Clemons, Middle School Director, Caldwell School System:

How will you work with 7th grade math teachers to get the rising 8th graders ready for Algebra I?

Sherry Griffith:

S Clemons: This was not considered by the State Board or the Governor’s office when they proposed and approved the new mandate. We hope to advance an assertive professional development program to work with both 7th and 8th grade teachers and K-6 teachers as well. We believe this will take a commitment on the part of our Legislature and Governor to fund math training for current teachers in the classroom.

Question from Russell King, HS Math Teacher/CD, Swampscott HS (MA):

Why push algebra on ALL students in 8th grade? Many AP Calculus students take more calculus as college freshmen (most take algebra in 8th grade). My level 1 seniors will most likely take more calculus in college and most of them took algebra in 8th and 9th grade. That leaves about 50% of the students in my school who take algebra I in 9th grade or even later. IMHO, by and large, the majority of students are not likely to use much abstract math in their careers because they show little interest in the subject, as well as average or below-average aptitude in higher-level math. How will force-feeding algebra I to kids help them do better at math when their preparation up to that point and natural ability in the subject may be below what’s need to ensure success at that level? Might such a program simply create more failures and turn more students off to the subject, as well as put even more pressure on teachers to “make lead balloons?” A program like this -- if it is to have any chance to work -- must force an overhaul of math education all the way back to preschool. Otherwise, I think it is doomed to fail, having created a lot of pain and wasted a lot of money along the way.

Jennifer Dounay:

I should clarify that I’m not saying that all 8th graders should be required to take Algebra I. I’m just saying that students will need Algebra I early in their secondary school education to reach the math requirements for four-year institutions--not mention to perform well on PSAT in grade 10, ACT and SAT in grade 11, which can have implications not only for college admissions but for scholarship eligibility.

I agree that many will not use abstract math in their careers, but at least making clear the coursework that will keep students out of remedial math should they choose to go to college is a good idea. Not to mention the Achieve “Math at Work” series that makes clear that even many “blue collar” professions that don’t require a four-year degree require a solid understanding of algebra, geometry, some trigonometry, etc.

Question from Danine Ezell, Energy Education, San Diego:

One problem may be the weak math preparation of elementary teachers. What do you think about about instituting an algebra test for K-6 teachers before requiring one for all 8th grade students?

Sherry Griffith:

Danine - Interesting concept however K-8 multiple subject teachers already go through many hoops to obtain their credential. We think a better approach would be to strengthen the higher education institutions teaching of the K-12 math content standards to teacher candidates. This may require a mandate on the higher education institutions as they must be a part of the solution.

Question from Twila Liggett, Professor of Teacher Education, Marymount Manhattan College:

Why another high stakes test? Besides when did anyone, including me, ever use algebra in real life?

Loren Kaye:

Why the test? To find out if the kids are learning the standard. Why the standard? To make sure the kids are taught what they should know. Why algebra? Not because - like you or me - they’re going to be solving quadratic equations in their daily life. But because algebra is a gateway to critical thinking, pivotal for success not just in science, engineering and technology, but also because it provides the discipline - maybe the first time in a child’s education - for using rules, critical thinking and analysis to solve problems. It’s the learning process and the skills, not the slope or y-intercept that’s important.

Question from Margaret Pellegrini, volunteer teacher of LD and Gifted students, Rochester MN School District:

For students who are lacking basic math skills, why can’t we give them algebra AND basic skills in two periods per day and use the Algebra to motivate the work on basic skills?

Sherry Griffith:

Margaret - Your idea is likely to happen because doing less would harm some kids. The sad fact is without the state funding a longer day then we have no choice but to eliminate many other subjects from the day. Basically it become math and english/language arts only with some PE for many middle schools. School districts will need to consider whether they should eliminate career tech courses, foreign language, art, music, and possibly science and history social science just to make room in the day.

Question from Linda Wymore, Coordinator, Family Empowerment Center:

If Algebra is REQUIRED in 8th grade, and high schools require 3 years of math, then all students will need some pretty high level math skills to graduate. While it is good to have high standards and expectations, the reality is that many are NOT bound for college, and we have completely gutted vocational classes, home ec. classes, etc. in favor of college prep. classes which many will never use. What is the rationale for algebra as a graduation requirement in the first place, and why 8th grade? What percent of jobs need algebra skills? Better would be to require 2-3 years of child development, as nearly ALL will become parents.

Jennifer Dounay:

I’m surprised to read that you believe “many” students are not bound for college. The surveys I’ve seen indicate that the majority of students--90% in some instances--plan to college. While I’d agree that not all students need or should be expected to go to college, the message of what college expects is not getting through to far too many young people, as evidenced by surveys of recent high school graduates/college freshmen/their employers and college instructors.

And while it may vary on a district by district basis, a good number of states are not “gutting” vocational education, but working hard to make sure that career/technical education programs are high-quality and preparing students for high-demand, career-potential jobs. See this database for more examples

Putting high expectations for all students in place (and allowing flexibility, so students can demonstrate math competency through CTE courses or other means) means adults in the building aren’t making decisions for young people, but that students and their parents can be prepared throughout high school and make informed decisions for themselves on next steps after high school.

Question from Mary Ellen, parent:

Are math teachers leaving the classroom in droves? Is the expectation that a teacher who sees 150 or more students a day can possibly meet this initiative? Will teachers be penalized when the students in their clasroom are not successful in Algebra--even though no one is considering the child’s readiness level?

Sherry Griffith:

Mary Ellen: We are concerned this will have a chilling effect on many K-8 multiple subject teachers and even the single subject teachers who teach general math but not Algebra I in the middle grades. We don’t believe high school teachers will want to transfer in large numbers down to the middle schools to teach Algebra I and given collective bargaining there will be constraints on moving some teachers. Yes teachers and administrators will be penalized for students who are not successful on the Algebra I test because a middle school who fails to get all (100 percent), of their Algebra I 8th graders to “proficiency” by 2014 will become a Program Improvement school and face interventions.

Sean Cavanagh (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have today, folks. We had many, many questions (and comments) on the California 8th grade mandate. Your input is greatly appreciated.

A transcript of today’s chat will be posted shortly on Education Week‘s web site, at

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