State Board now can wade back into eighth grade math debate

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By ‘ajaxofsalamis’

The State Board of Education will be able to disentangle competing math standards that have been creating confusion over what should be taught in eighth grade, under a bill headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

SB 1200, written by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the Department of Education, will remove one of many hurdles that the state and districts are facing to meet the fall 2014 target for implementing the Common Core standards. But for advocates of continuing the decade-long promotion of Algebra I instruction in eighth grade, SB 1200 is creating anxiety.

Two years ago, with limited options and an impending deadline, the State Board adopted the national Common Core math standards, with a California twist. The eighth grade math standards included both the Common Core pre-Algebra standards, which the writers of Common Core recommended and other states have adopted intact, and the full set of California Algebra I standards pushed by allies of then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It was an unwieldy conglomeration that reflected an unsettled disagreement over whether Algebra I should be the predominant choice for eighth graders. But the Legislature had forbidden the State Board from going back in to make sense of the standards until now.

If the State Board moves forward with the recommendations contained in SB 1200, it will weed out California’s eighth grade Algebra I standards. The default course for eighth graders will be Common Core pre-Algebra.

In addition, other changes in the standards that were intended to create a path leading to Algebra I in eighth grade will be removed. A handful of Common Core eighth grade standards that were pushed down and duplicated in the seventh grade standards, as well as a few seventh grade Common Core standards that were repeated in sixth grade, may also be deleted.

Between now and the end of March, when the State Board must decide the final form of the math standards, Torlakson will consult experts, including classroom teachers, on what to recommend to the State Board. But SB 1200, which Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) sponsored at Torlakson’s request, gives explicit direction:

  • Redundant standards should be eliminated;
  • There should be one set of standards per grade (pre-Algebra in eighth);
  • The standards for Algebra I should be based on Common Core (not California’s) standards.

The bill argues that non-conforming math standards will create confusion and add costs to California, since publishers would have to create California-specific materials, and California-specific assessments would have to be designed. It does not make an argument that pre-Algebra is the wiser course for most students.

Last year, about two-thirds of students took Algebra I by eighth grade. Would the adoption of pre-Algebra as the default course for eighth grade derail the teaching of Algebra I in eighth grade?

No, say Bill Honig, who chairs the commission overseeing the implementation of Common Core on behalf of the State Board, and Tom Adams, who directs the Education Department’s Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division.

Those students who are ready to take Algebra I in eighth grade will continue to do so, they say. The State Board has directed the 19-member Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee, which it appointed in July, to create recommendations for an accelerated path to Algebra. They will be incorporated in the detailed curriculum frameworks, which will amplify Common Core standards and provide guidance to teachers. The committee will be working on the math frameworks over the next year. Districts will decide the extent of offering Algebra I before ninth grade, Honig has said.

There currently is no Common Core Algebra I course per se; there are only higher math standards, organized in conceptual categories, of which Algebra is one. It will be up to California, working alone or with other states, to design courses, whether the traditional sequence – Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus – or a series of integrated math courses.

Adams said the course design will be another task of the math frameworks committee, which must complete its work and make recommendations to the State Board for adoption by November 2013.

For the most part, algebra is algebra. But by specifying that Algebra I must be based on Common Core, not California standards, SB 1200 raises the possibility that California must design a new Algebra I assessment to go with a new course. No state money has been allocated for this, and there’s been no decision on moving ahead, Adams said. But California is looking at how states like Massachusetts are approaching the issue and will benefit from others’ work.

It’s possible that Algebra I students will be able to take the Common Core eighth grade assessment, which, according to designers, can be adapted for more advanced students. But that capability has not yet been established. With so much uncertainty regarding what an Algebra I course, assessment, and materials may look like, Algebra advocates worry that middle schools will take the safer alternative of offering pre-Algebra for the vast majority of students.

Districts choose what to buy

Along with amending the math standards to conform with national Common Core standards, by March 31 the State Board must approve the criteria on which publishers will base next-generation textbooks and digital materials for grades K-8. But AB 1246, a companion bill to SB 1200, lays out a new, much faster process for materials adoption while at the same time giving districts new authority to choose what they want, without an explicit OK from the state.

This represents a major shift in policy. Districts were restricted under previous textbook adoptions to purchase from a limited list approved by the State Board. The process took 30 months. The new cycle has been cut to 12 months, and the process will be advisory, more like a seal of approval. AB 1246, sponsored by Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, gives districts the authority to buy any materials that are aligned to Common Core standards. With the exception of startups and small operations, publishers that choose to go through the adoption process – and many believe it’s still worth their while to do so – will be charged a fee to cover adoption expenses.

AB 1246 reflects a new reality:

  • In a fast-moving digital world, the State Board and the Department of Education cannot keep up with textbook revisions and the shift to online materials, in which teachers can swap or augment materials from traditional textbooks;
  •  The Common Core has created a national marketplace, with many competitors and open-source alternatives to traditional publishers. A top-down state adoption process is becoming an anachronism;
  •  In exchange for cutting their budgets, the Legislature has given districts flexibility to spend textbook and materials money for other purposes. With a little creativity, districts have been able to shift money around and basically buy whatever materials they want anyway.




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16 Responses to “State Board now can wade back into eighth grade math debate”

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  1. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm09/18/2012 1:56 pm

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    Thank you for this epic brain-draining mind-numbing discussion.

    It sounds to me like we may be returning –I hate to say “going back” — to yesteryear when Algebra was for 9th grade and something preparatory to Algebra was for 8th grade. But it’s being proposed that local school districts have the right to decide and the State doesn’t get to call all the shots.

    If less than half of California’s 8th grade Algebra students tested “Proficient” in Y2011, it sounds to me like this is a good plan, but only if more of them test “Proficient” when they take Algebra in grade 9. How can we know that will happen? Does anything in these bills describe how more kids may become proficient in Algebra at any point in their schooling?

  2. john mockler on Sep 18, 2012 at 10:51 am09/18/2012 10:51 am

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    Beth Baker NAPE 8th Grade is not an Algebra Test. It is general math test. Testing is invalid if you are not testing the material taught. John

  3. Doug McRae on Sep 7, 2012 at 10:25 am09/7/2012 10:25 am

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    Ben: Good line re “Math Wars II.” We’ll have to keep that in mind when STAR Wars II erupts with the re-authorization of STAR next year. But, on a more substantive note, you’ve been drinking from the rhetoric surrounding the Common Core, rhetoric re deep shifts and deep understanding and think mathematically. We’ve heard that rhetoric before, generally accompanying new initiatives, but in my crusted old age I’m inclined to pay more attention to the “what” is being taught and learned rather than the rhetoric around how it is learned or qualitative descriptions of the quality of the learning. Perhaps that’s my nature as a quant. For the 8th grade math issue, the “what” is quite clear — Pre-Algebra vs Algebra. What we establish via policy as our expectations for learning (i.e., standards)are more clearly understood via the “what” than rhetoric about the quality. And I gotta say I don’t fetish about quadratic equations in 8th grade — I’ll leave that debate to the math educators and accept whatever decision they render and then try hard to measure whatever it is they want learned. I’m afraid my fetishes have more to do with validity and reliability of test scores rather than quadratic equations in 8th grade.

    Beth: I do not see the 6th / 7th / 8th grade math standards as dumbed down either, especially in terms of a nationwide perspective. But they do establish lower expectations for middle school mathematics learning than CA has had for the past 15 years. In that context, the CC middle school math standards are less rigorous than CA’s 1997 math standards.

  4. Beth Baker on Sep 6, 2012 at 12:42 pm09/6/2012 12:42 pm

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    According to the cde, the 2011 8th graders tested 47% Prof/Adv in Algebra. CA 8th graders scored 29% prof/adv on the NAEP in 2011-that’s third to last place ranking. There’s a big difference between saying “75% of 8th graders are taking Algebra in CA” and looking at how many of them are learning the full course materials. I have invested quite a few hours digesting the new CC for 6th /7th/ 8th and do not see the curriculum as dumbed down. I do see the need to update our methods however untidy the change may be. Whether we find a way to accommodate a traditional Algebra class to 8th graders is less relevant than the entirety of what students have a full grasp of as they graduate high school and go on to college or career. We do have growing pains in our immediate future, but the stats make it look like status quo in CA is not such a good idea.

  5. Ben Riley on Sep 6, 2012 at 7:37 am09/6/2012 7:37 am

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    Wearing my old CA DOJ attorney hat, I have to say that SB 1200 does seem rife with litigious possibility. As We’ev points out, the statute requires “one set of standards is adopted at each grade level,” which if read literally would require a sequenced math curriculum throughout high school — which is at odds with the Common Core. Also, as Doug notes, SB 1200 requires that Algebra I content standards be based “on Common Core academic content standards for mathematics,” but I’m not sure what that means — does it mean the Common Core High School: Algebra standards? It’s a weird statute because it purports be giving the State Board authority but then puts all sorts of restrictions on exercising it.

    But stepping back for a second, I fear people are gearing up for “Math Wars II: Algebra Strikes Back” without really understanding the deep shift that’s taking place with Common Core. Instead of fetishizing whether kids have been introduced to quadratic equations by eighth grade, we should be looking the Common Core’s emphasis on deep understanding and fluency with mathematics. As Bill alludes to, what the Common Core requires kids to do by 8th grade is far beyond what we expect of students in California today — and I’d say that’s likely true even for kids who’ve taken Algebra I. We are teaching kids to solve math problems, but not to think mathematically.

  6. Doug McRae on Sep 5, 2012 at 7:15 pm09/5/2012 7:15 pm

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    Bill: You’all need to read the actual language of SB 1200. It says that any revision to the CA math standards adopted Aug 2010 have to (1) include all national Common Core math standards by grade, and (2) include no more than one set of standards. Those two requirements exclude a two-pathway policy for middle school math. Yes, whatever the State Board approves is not a mandate for LEAs, so LEAs can teach Algebra to 8th graders but they would do so without Sacramento support via curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, or professional development. I do not question the sincerity of your intentions as Chair of the IQC, but the language in SB 1200 does not provide statutory authority to do what you want to do. And anything beyond statutory authority will be challenged — that’s the nature of democracy. The national CC does have some early Algebra components, but it is essentially a good Pre-Algebra set of standards. The so-called “beefed up” national CC math standards are not watered down compared to other Pre-Algebra standards, but they do generate lower expectations for CA 8th graders as a whole compared to our previous 1997 standards; in that sense, the national CC are “dumbed down” compared to the goal that all 8th graders eventually take Algebra.

    SB 1200 also specifies that any Algebra approved by the State Board be based on the national CC Algebra content standards. First, there are no national CC Algebra content standards; instead there is an appendix written by staff (but not vetted using the CC vetting process) suggesting high school course standards for potential adotpion by individual states, with the notion that individual states can customize as desired. Second, the suggested Algebra standards are less robust than CA’s 1997 Algebra standards — for instance, the Algebra material included in the CC appendix does not include quadratic equations, while the CA 1997 Algebra standards do. This decision was heavily vetted back in 1997, part of what Peter Schrag called the “math wars,” and the decision to include quadratic equations was based on the need for that knowledge for students to be adequately prepared to take Algebra II.

    In short, SB 1200 does not facilitate a two-pathway policy for midddle school mathematics; rather it prohibits it as a statewide policy and it discourages it as the local level.

    The need to accelerate the adoption process in AB 1246 is based primarily on the notion that new SBAC tests will be implemented in 2014-15. Given the IT infrastructure situation and the lack of $$$ to upgrate infrastructure, that assumption is very dubious. I have no qualm with reducing the 30 month timeline, especially if the publishers say OK (and they have), but a reduced timeline has to be associated with a good 2-pathway policy — the SB 1200 / AB 1246 approach does not supply that policy. Also, the mis-sequencing of criteria for adopting textbooks and the availability of revised curriculum frameworks is a glaring error.

    Finally, the statement that the SBAC tests are adaptive so that 2 grades above and 2 grades below can be tested with one “grade level” test is an oxymoron, or at best fanciful thinking. That marketing statement is beyond the current state-of-the-art for K-12 adaptive tests, and nobody has shown that adaptive tests can provide valid and reliable scores for the full range of Pre-Algebra and Algebra I content. We need to show something can and will work before we put all our assessment eggs in that basket.

  7. john mockler on Sep 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm09/5/2012 6:54 pm

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    I love Bill Honig but he has clearly not read the bill that was sent to the Governor John Mockler

  8. Paul Muench on Sep 5, 2012 at 6:41 pm09/5/2012 6:41 pm

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    In light of common core, maintaining algebra or beyond for 8th graders was a big concern for some parents in my district. I wrote a letter to the superintendent, all the school board members, and the principal of our school. I received an assurance from the superintendent that the long tradition of differentiated math instruction would continue. I really hope the state doesn’t reverse that!

  9. Randy on Sep 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm09/5/2012 6:33 pm

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    In this rush toward common core, when will teachers be “trained”. It is a distinctly different thought process and thus far, it seems to be every teacher or school or district for themselves. We are two years away and I would venture most of my colleagues have never done more than glance at the standards and few if any have read them. If we are advocating change, hoping that teachers will educate themselves is a poor way to implement fundamental and systemic reform – I worry we are setting ourselves up for failure.

  10. Bill Honig on Sep 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm09/5/2012 5:43 pm

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    First of all, nothing in SB1200 which requires one set of standards for each grade precludes local districts’ placement decisions such as allowing a seventh grader who needs to revisit sixth grade material from doing so or conversely allowing students who are ready for algebra in the eighth grade to take it and to take an accelerated math progression to master 5-8 common core material in three years to qualify. What SB1200 does is give the State Board the authority to make changes in the 2010 sdopted standards to support a two pathway strategy for eighth grade as described by John Fensterwald. Secondly, the Smarter Balanced tests are adaptive (two-years beyond the grade and two-years below) so students behind or ahead can still be tested with one grade level test. Thirdly, common core 8th grade math has a significant Algebra component, so all students will get the first stages of Algebra. More importantly, the idea that the beefed up national Common Core 8th grade standards are watered down is severely off base. A heavy concentration on ratio, proportion, percentage and the application of those subjects to complex situations is more demanding and ambitious than what is now usually taught in 8th grade pre-algebra.

    The plan is to get all students to this higher level while continuing to encourage those students who are ready for Algebra I in the eighth grade to take and pass it. These bills facilitate those objectives.

    As for adopting materials for the common core standards, John Fensterwald has it right. Publishers are working on materials now, under the new bills local districts may adopt what they wish, and many want the advice of the state adoption (which is now advisory) for help in deciding what to buy. If the SBE doesn’t accelerate the adoption process, districts who want to move ahead with the adoption of common core materials but who want to wait for that advice will be in the unenviable position of having a Smarter/Balanced assessment implemented in 2014 but having no materials based on Common Core. Moreover, if we adhere to the traditional 30 month timeline, California will lose an opportunity to influence the quality of these new materials.

  11. el on Sep 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm09/5/2012 3:24 pm

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    I too am concerned that this isn’t the right path. I think algebra in 8th grade and 4 years of math in high school ending in calculus is what we should aspire to. We’ve finally only just raised a generation of kids with the background of algebra earlier such that we might be ready… and now I fear that the change will make it an uphill battle to keep kids in that kind of a track.

    On the other hand, I also firmly believe that some kids are not ready for algebra in 8th grade, and that they benefit from another year of pre-algebra. We should honor that track when chosen appropriately. But I don’t think it should be the default.

  12. Sandy Piderit on Sep 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm09/5/2012 1:04 pm

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    And when do students take statistics? For many students, that will be more useful than a full-blown calculus course.

  13. Ze'ev Wurman on Sep 5, 2012 at 1:03 pm09/5/2012 1:03 pm

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    Unfortunately I have to disagree with Bill Honig and Tom Adams, when they argue that “[t]hose students who are ready to take Algebra I in eighth grade will continue to do so” However the State Board may choose to direct the Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee doesn’t really matter. They can rewrite the Bible there, for all anyone cares — if SB1200 is signed by the Governor, California LAW will say “one set of standards for each grade” and the first thing all those fuzzies will do is to sue anyone who offers alternate paths in different grades. Including at the high school level, as John Mockler correctly points out — the bill makes no distinction between elementary, middle, or high school grades. That’s the true asinine character of this dumb bill.

  14. john mockler on Sep 5, 2012 at 10:44 am09/5/2012 10:44 am

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    John I think you should read the whole bill before such speculation. AB 1200 requires all of the Common Core Standards to be adopted even though the Common Core folk allow for 15% variance. It requires, read that requires, one set of standards for each grade level. This of course eliminates school districts choice of at which grade level to teach not only Algebra I but Algebra II and Geometry. Current practice allow students and schools wide choice of which grade level to teach what subjects to which students. Thus the 75% of students now taking Algebra in 7th and 8th Grade will be “off standards” and likely to score poorly on the new grade level standards tests. That is just silly. The measure also creates statutory approval of a set of Science Standards which have never been reviewed by an public body in California and it grants new authority to the State Superintendent. By the way it is not connected to the Brownley legislation though it once was. john

  15. Doug McRae on Sep 5, 2012 at 8:41 am09/5/2012 8:41 am

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    SB 1200 leads us to a one-size-fits-all Pre-Algebra curriculum for all 8th graders, per the national Common Core. And it leads us to to so-called CC Algebra, which is less robust that our previous 1997 Algebra. It lowers the expectations for middle school mathematics compared to our 1997 standards, and it specifies a rush rush approval for revised math standards by March 30, 2013. AB 1246 then specifies rush rush criteria for adoption of math textbooks for the revised math standards by March 31, 2013, only one day after adoption of revised math standards, and eight months before the deadline for revised math curriculum frameworks. This sequence makes the alignment of math textbooks to revised curriculum frameworks very problematic, likely leading to misalignment that makes a mess of implementation of curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and professional development for middle school mathematics.

    The reality is that some CA 8th graders are ready and should take Algebra by 8th grade, and others are not-yet-ready for Algebra and will benefit from the national Common Core Pre-Algebra standards. Per Goldilocks, Algebra for all 8th graders makes the porridge too hot, while Pre-Algebra for all 8th graders makes the porridge too cold. The sensible policy is to have a mixture, a two-pathway policy, to make the porridge “just right.” There is no question the 1997 initiative had some implementation flaws, primarily lack of support for 8th graders not-yet-ready for Algebra, and overly aggressive placement for some 8th graders into Algebra as 8th graders. And the August 2010 CA version of the Common Core, as John describes in his post, was unwieldly. But, going forward, to use the SB 1200 / AB 1246 approach is a rush rush overcorrection. It establishes considerably lower expectations for middle school math in California — Pre-Algebra for 8th grade, less robust Algebra for high school. Curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and professional development will all have to be geared to these lower expectations. The claim that computer-adaptive testing will be able to handle both Pre-Algebra and Algebra is wishful thinking — that is beyond the current state of documented experience with computer-adaptive assessment methods.

    SB 1200 / AB 1246 lead California back to the pre-1997 days that have been characterized as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I can only hope that Sacramento leadership will see the bigger picture that will result from SB 1200 / AB 1246 and have these bills vetoed by the Governor. We need to go back and get our middle school mathematics policy done right to reflect the reality of a true two-pathway approach (for the porridge to be just right) and keep the train moving in the right direction.

  16. Ben Riley on Sep 5, 2012 at 6:42 am09/5/2012 6:42 am

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    Good article, John. Two thoughts that occur to me:

    – If the Common Core standards and assessments work as intended (and that’s a huge, massive if), we should be able to stop asking questions like “what grade should we teach algebra?” Common Core should move us away from thinking of math subjects as discrete. Instead, “algebraic concepts” are woven into the standards over multiple grade levels, and we should — again, emphasis on should — be able to track an individual student’s progress against them throughout their academic career. We should also provide differentiated instruction models to meet each student where they are, rather than sticking them in a room with 25-30 other kids and hoping they all move along at the same rate.

    – You rightly note that districts have maneuvered around the cumbersome rules regarding textbook adoption, and goodness knows Bill Honig is doing what he can. But why are we stuck with mindset of *districts* purchasing materials? What would happen if we empowered teachers — who happen to be the ones who use instructional materials we’re talking about — to make their own decisions?

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