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.

Photo by 'arjin j'

Photo by ‘arjin j’

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.

Bill Honig, chair of the Instructional Quality Commission

Bill Honig, chair of the Instructional Quality Commission

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 to contact him.

Filed under: Common Core, Reporting & Analysis, State and Federal Policies, State Board of Education, STEM, Tests and Assessments · Tags: , , ,

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  1. Navigio says:

    I would also like to understand the source of the stem course progression claim/assumption. After having read this piece I went looking for something upon which this might be based but came up empty. It seems that with more and more stem-specific schools cropping up, this would be something useful for the community to better understand.

  2. Cal says:

    “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.”

    What on earth are you talking about? A student who took a genuine pre-calc course in high school has sacrificed nothing. In fact, any student who had a *genuine* understanding of algebra II and trigonometry by his senior year is ready for a STEM career. Colleges offer pre-calculus course and higher as credit-bearing.

    I can’t stress this enough: your claim that high school calculus is necessary to a STEM career is absurd, and one often repeated by Ze’ev and others.

    On the larger point, neither you nor Ze’ev has ever made it clear something that I really, really want to understand: will the Common Core standards PREVENT qualified students from taking algebra in seventh or eighth grade–that is, will it cost more money for states to do it, force them to create one-off tests, or penalize them by not acknowledging the students taking advanced math (and thus giving them a hit in scores)? I want the logistics.

    From a policy standpoint, Ze’ev is wrong on the facts. Forcing algebra on eighth graders has been a disaster. He is also completely wrong on the history: before 1997, many California students took algebra in 8th grade. AP Calculus has been around for a long time in most public schools.

    And if the new Common Core will do nothing more than return California and other states to what used to be the norm, then fine.

    So here, I guess, is the question: Ze’ev is wrong about the history. But what worries me is, is he right that public schools going forward? It seems to me, looking at the standards, that public schools will have a disincentive to create their own tests and encourage seventh and eighth graders to take algebra, thus forcing public school parents in excellent suburban schools to push for something they’ve had for fifty years or more. That would be bad.

    But Ze’ev is too busy speaking nonsense about the past for me to be sure he’s correct, and you, John, don’t seem interested in finding out from anyone other than Ze’ev what, specifically, will happen on the Algebra topics. What person on the CC team can answer that question specifically?

  3. RIchard Wagoner says:

    The assumption that private schools offer algebra in 8th grade is interesting … and not true. The private schools near me only place kids who are ready in to algebra; it is the public schools that force unprepared students to take the class, destroying any chance for high-level kids to learn what they deserve to learn.

  4. Navigio says:

    While I conceptually support the idea of incentivizing sufficient (and early) preparation for the math course of study for all kids, I think as it relates to college and/or stem preparation the question really becomes whether that incentive is followed up on by the students who would not otherwise be taking algebra in 8th grade. In other words, the measure of whether the 8th grade algebra incentive is serving its purpose shouldn’t be measured by 8th grade algebra participation, rather by the rates of students who used that opportunity to follow up with the next four years of high school math. For students who choose not to go past geometry (or even algebra if that’s still possible), it matters little whether they took algebra in 8th grade (in fact some studies show that to actually be a disincentive to staying in school for some kids). I have not been able to find any good statistics on high school math participation levels, though what does seem to be clear (and maybe obvious), nowhere near all the 8th grade algebra takers end up also taking algebra II, though admittedly the overall participation rate in algebra II has been creeping up. Ze’ev, do you have accurate measures for those things?
    That said, I absolutely agree with the other commenters who said that this is only going to widen the gap between the math opportunity haves and have nots. And worse, it will probably lead to a subtle loss of urgency in providing stem related foundations at the elementary level. Something we already have a problem with. 
    And finally, I agree with Ze’ev that this is going to provide yet another reason for a group of families to decide against public education. 

  5. Ze'ev Wurman says:


    There was a special accelerated textbooks adoption in 1999, shortly after the California Standards adoption, to provide materials in support of the required preparation. And there was an extra $1B allocated to spend on accelerated textbook purchases. The data indicates that it mostly worked. But I completely agree with your final point: “we are now reverting to the policies of yesteryear that afforded only the math “elite” the chance to master the complexities of the subject.” Expect public school algebra taking by eighth grade to drop like a rock, while private schools will keep it. So guess which students will have an advantage when enrolling in selective colleges, with AP Calc and AP Physics under their belt.

  6. Bob Bruesch says:

    The 8th grade requirement of all students taking (and passing) Algebra I was unrealistic from the git-go. In order to increase the number of middle school students taking Algebra, they need preparation in the elementary schools in pre-Algebra skills. This can’t happen unless the math textbook adoptions of the state don’t emphasize pre-Algebra skills. Since textbook adoptions work on a seven year cycle, new 5th and 6th grade math texts did not emphasize the needed skills to prepare young students for the challenges. How ludicrous, now that the recently adopted textbooks are providing elementary students with the needed knowledge base for 8th grade Algebra, we are now reverting to the policies of yesteryear that afforded only the math “elite” the chance to master the complexities of the subject,

  7. Ben Riley says:

    Imagine if we were spending $3.6 billion:

    – To invest in our IT infrastructure
    – To develop rigorous formative and summative assessments that identify what content standards students have mastered, and where they need help
    – To promote design policies such that instruction is tailored the specific needs of each student in California
    – To deeply train teachers and principals to teach to the Common Core, using open education resources
    – To develop social networking tools that connect educators to parents, so all are equally invested in the success of each child’s learning

    Would we have to wait until 2018, as Doug McRae suggests? Can we afford to wait that long?

  8. Doug McRae says:

    The core policy issue for middle school mathematics in California is really pretty simple — it should be based on the reality that some kids are ready for Algebra by 8th grade, and others are not. The IQC guidelines for revised curriculum frameworks for middle school math recognize this reality, so the IQC guidelines approved by the State Board several days ago have us on the right path, that is, appropriate instruction both for kids ready for Algebra and for kids not yet ready for Algebra by grade 8.

    Now, to be aligned with instruction, our assessment system has to recognize both sets of kids and in effect have two distinct tests. One way to do that is via computer-adaptive testing that uses instantaneous feedback to expand the range of testing to potentially include accurate scores for both sets of kids. The problem is computer-adaptive testing has huge start-up costs for IT infrastructure and also is not a proven technology for satisfying many of the needs for summative accountability tests in California, so I for one am a real skeptic that CA can implement computer-adaptive testing by the current 2015 target date.

    I think 2018 is a reasonable target date for computer-administered versions of paper-and-pencil fixed format tests in California, with computer-adaptive tests initiated after we are successful implementing computer-administered fixed-format tests. Can we have two fixed-format tests (either paper-and-pencil or computer-administered) for the two sets of kids taking two differing instructional sequences in 8th grade? Yes, we can. We have to discard the myth that the feds require a one-size-fits-all test for 8th grade mathematics, and instead embrace a two-test design [Algebra I for kids taking Algebra I, a pre-Algebra or Algebra Readiness (perhaps a consortium test based on the national Common Core will do nicely) for kids not taking Algebra I] that are built on a common scale of measurement with performance standards set on that common scale of measurement so that we can compute apples-to-apples statewide data that include both sets of kids and both tests. This design is really a paper-and-pencil fixed-format equivalent of the fancier computer-adaptive design, and such a two-test design has already been approved by the feds for at least one other state. The IQC guidelines along with a two-test assessment program design will maintain the strong progress that CA has achieved over the past 15 years via the Algebra by 8th grade policy initiative.

    SB 1200, in contrast, would lead to a one-test-fits-all design based only on the national Common Core, a lower expectation for middle school mathematics than what California has had for the past 15 years. Following the dictum that “what gets measured is what gets taught,” the result will be lower expectations, less overall rigor of instruction, and lower math achievement levels for our middle school students over time.

    The bottom line is that the IQC guidelines have it right, it is possible for our assessment system to be designed to be aligned with the IQC direction with or without computer-adaptive testing, and SB 1200 heads us in the wrong direction.

  9. el says:

    Computer Adaptive Testing. Ah, yes, unicorns and fairies will see to it that computers, electrical infrastructure, and network bandwidth will magically arrive in our schools by 2014 even though no one on either a state or national level appears to be thinking about exactly how that will happen with what people and what money.

    Our school would really benefit from having a dedicated sysadmin. I think it would be impossible to expect computers to be deployed and used in the classrooms regularly without that person. I’m not seeing how it will be funded with another -8% change in ADA money.

  10. john mockler says:

    John Just because students score below Proficient or Advanced in no way says they are ” not passing.” Plus the proficiency rate has increased every year even as the number and percent of students taking the course have increased. Absolutely we need to improve math teaching in grades 2 to 7 but to abandon Algebra for the sake of some movement will set back math education not improve it. John