The State Board of Education left unresolved a contentious issue of how much algebra should be taught in eighth grade, and to which students, when it approved the state version of the Common Core math standards two years ago. At stake was whether students should be required to take Algebra I in the eighth grade – a subject that many more students are taking but also failing – or wait until they get to high school in the ninth grade to do so, which was the sequence of the Common Core standards adopted by other states.
Now there are moves in the Legislature and by the State Board of Education to settle the issue. The result could be a subtle shift away from the state’s decade-long push toward teaching primarily Algebra I in eighth grade.
On Wednesday, the State Board named a 19-member Mathematics Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee, consisting of math teachers and higher education math experts. It will have little more than a year for a mammoth undertaking: Create strategies for implementing K-12 Common Core math in the classroom, guidelines for publishers, and suggestions for using technology for pedagogy and professional development.
Another of the charges: Make recommendations to the State Board on “the issues related to mathematics instruction in grades eight and beyond”: in other words, lay out course guidelines and make policy recommendations involving eighth grade and high school math.
Senate Bill 1200, which Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) is authoring at the request of the state Department of Education, would give the State Board and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction the authority to amend the state’s 2-year-old Common Core standards. Most states adopted the national Common Core math standards intact, but the State Board appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger appended them to include California’s Algebra standards for eighth grade and made other changes thought to better prepare students for Algebra in eighth grade. Hancock and Education Department officials argue that removing these additional state math standards and other modifications would save costs, clear up confusion, and avoid potential complications: the need to create additional standardized test items, buy textbooks unique to California, and train teachers on California’s hybrid standards. At least that’s the rationale for SB 1200.
All of this is not to say that when Common Core standards are implemented, starting in 2014-15, California students will stop taking Algebra in eighth grade.
Former State Superintendent Bill Honig chairs the Instructional Quality Commission, which will oversee the work of the curriculum framework committee on behalf of the State Board. Honig insists that many students will continue to take Algebra, and he points to the guidelines that the State Board passed on Wednesday for the just-appointed framework committee. They direct the Committee to present school districts with options for an “acceleration path” so that students capable of handling Algebra I can progress to it by eighth grade.
Honig says that “computer-adaptive testing,” which the Smarter Balanced Consortium of states creating the new Common Core standardized tests is promising, will enable teachers to better identify which students are ready for Algebra in eighth grade and which students in lower grades could be on an accelerated path to Algebra.
The goal of adaptive assessments is to individualize testing; computer programs will be able to tailor questions based on answers to previous questions. They are more precise in identifying the extent to which students are ahead of or behind grade level. (Doug McRae, a retired standardized testing expert from Monterey, repeated his doubts at the State Board meeting this week that Smarter Balanced will deliver computer-adaptive testing or that technology-impaired California districts will be capable of deploying it until 2018 or later.)
Honig says it’s premature to estimate what percentage of eighth graders will take Algebra. The curriculum framework committee has yet to begin its work and the State Board won’t adopt the math frameworks until November 2013. Then it will be up individual districts and schools to decide what accelerated Common Core math would look like: individualized instruction for students who are farther along than their peers or separate accelerated classes for these advanced students.
Regardless, he says, the Common Core Pre-Algebra eighth grade course will be more demanding than what students who aren’t now taking Algebra in eighth grade are receiving under the California standards.
But what is clear is that California will no longer have a policy pushing Algebra in eighth grade. Instead, the new policy, as the guidance from the State Board to the curriculum framework committee makes clear, would be to create “options for middle school acceleration to support Algebra I … that are consistent with other Common Core states.” (my emphasis) Most of these states have never considered universal Algebra I in eighth grade as desirable.
State policy encouraged Algebra I
For the past decade, California has used the accountability lever – dinging the standardized test scores of students in eighth grade who aren’t taking Algebra I – to encourage districts to offer Algebra in eighth grade. Advocacy groups for minority students saw expanding enrollment in Algebra I in eighth grade as key to closing the achievement gap and as an equity issue.
State policy and lobbying by advocates for minority students worked. Last year, two-thirds of eighth graders took either Algebra or Geometry – compared with only a third in 2003. At the same time, the proportion of students who tested proficient rose from 39 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2011 (50 percent when seventh graders taking Algebra 1 are included).
But that still left more than half of students not passing the state end-of-year test, leading to criticism that too many students are being forced into Algebra unprepared and then being made to repeat it in ninth grade.
The national Common Core standards take a more gradual approach, giving students more time to learn the key building blocks of Algebra, like fractions and variables. In eighth grade they would take Pre-Algebra, with most ninth graders taking a yet-to-be developed Algebra I curriculum. The ninth grade Algebra students could take four years of higher math in high school – not enough to pursue a STEM major in college (unless they fit it in Calculus over a summer or took two math courses in one year), but sufficient for non-science majors in college, admission to a four-year state university, or technical jobs requiring applied math.
A compromise and a mess
The dilemma before the State Board today stems from an uncomfortable compromise that the predecessor of today’s Instructional Quality Commission made two years ago. That Commission faced a tight deadline and the demands of Gov. Schwarzenegger that the state’s “rigorous” math standards be preserved – code for keeping Algebra I in eighth grade. As a result, the Commission adopted two sets of standards for eighth grade: one of Common Core eighth grade math (effectively Pre-Algebra) and one with an unwieldy set of standards combining Common Core eighth grade, California’s Algebra I standards, and some Common Core Algebra standards. The Commission also pushed a few Common Core sixth and seventh grade standards down a grade – necessary, defenders of California’s standards argued, for students to be truly ready for Algebra I in eighth grade. The Commission left it up to a future standards commission to sort out the jumble.
SB 1200 would empower the current State Board and state Superintendent to weed out the standards that aren’t consistent with the Common Core, including those out of the sequence by grade. It could also replace the California Algebra I standards with a yet-to-be Common Core Algebra I course. To the uninitiated, Algebra is Algebra. But Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer who helped develop the California math standards, insists that California’s Algebra I standards contain important elements, needed to prepare students for Algebra II, that are missing from the national Common Core Algebra standards.
Wurman was one of the Schwarzenegger appointees to the Commission that two years ago forced through the changes to the Common Core standards. He predicts that removing them would lead to a sharp decline in the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade and a retreat from California’s rigorous standards. Honig says that students ready for Algebra I will take it, and the curriculum frameworks will guide teachers on meeting that challenge. Regardless of whether they take Algebra I in eighth or ninth grade, students will be better prepared for advanced math under Common Core, he says.
Assuming SB 1200 passes, the State Board will likely clear up confusion over two sets of eighth grade math standards. But it could choose to do little or nothing to the standards. It would have until next summer to decide.
John Fensterwald is the editor of EdSource Today. Write firstname.lastname@example.org to contact him.