State Board now can wade back into eighth grade math debate
September 5, 2012 | By John Fensterwald | 16 Comments
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.