An education committee recommended Tuesday that the state stop docking the test scores of districts that don’t offer Algebra I in 8th grade. The recommendation by the Public Schools Accountability Act Advisory Committee would reverse a decade-old practice and could go to the State Board of Education as early as next month.
The Advisory Committee is charged with suggesting changes to the state’s school accountability system, the Academic Performance Index or API. It will soon be transformed as a result of the switch from state tests to tests aligned to the new Common Core standards, as well as the passage of Senate Bill 1458, which requires that career and college readiness measures and high school graduation rates be included, along with standardized test results, in the API.
On Tuesday, though, the committee dispensed with the controversial penalties and incentives surrounding 8th grade math.
The State Board already has already adopted Common Core’s pre-algebra course as the new default curriculum for 8th grade and stripped California’s Algebra I standards from 8th grade. Most students will likely take the full Common Core Algebra I in 9th grade. So dropping the penalties for offering non-Algebra math would be consistent with the Board’s intent and would mark the final move away from the policy of encouraging algebra-for-all in 8th grade.
Under the current accountability system, students who take General Math instead of Algebra I in 8th grade are knocked down one performance level in their standardized math test score, which then lowers their school’s API score. A student who scores proficient is dropped to basic, while a student who scores basic is knocked down to below basic – and so on. Students who take General Math in 9th grade are lowered two levels.
A previous State Board adopted the scoring disincentives a decade ago to prod districts, particularly those with predominately minority students, to offer Algebra I in middle school to encourage more students to pursue higher math and science courses required for admission to four-year state universities. And it worked – at least in part. Over the past nine years, overall enrollment in Algebra I in 8th grade increased 41 percent, while the enrollments more than doubled for African American students and tripled for Hispanics. Proficiency rates slightly more than doubled, to 34 percent for African Americans and 42 percent for Hispanic students.
But that still left 60 percent of minority students less than proficient on their Algebra I standardized test. Studies by EdSource and recent research by WestEd concluded that too many 8th graders were being forced into Algebra I unprepared. Of those required to repeat it in high school, the odds that a student would pass the CST a second time were less than 20 percent.
While “a noble and important cause and intention, the most recent study showed there were a lot of problems with misplacement, with students hardly getting past Algebra I not to mention Algebra II,” said State Board member Trish Williams, the board’s liaison to the advisory committee.
Supporters of the current system predict a sharp drop in Algebra enrollment in 8th grade under Common Core. Certainly, without the sanctions, schools will feel less pressure. A state Department of Education analysis projects that, with penalties removed, the average base API score in 7th and 8th grades will automatically rise 10 points, from 792 to 802. While 40 percent of schools will see no impact, 30 percent will see their scores rise one to five points, and 16 percent will see a 5 to 10 point gain.
But Bill Honig, a former state superintendent of public instruction and chairman of the commission advising the State Board on Common Core implementation, said the goal is to be neutral and to place students in the course they’re ready to take. The 8th grade Common Core math will be far more rigorous than General Math, he said, and Algebra will comprise one third of the content. He indicated that the State Board might consider rewarding students who do pass Common Core Algebra I in 8th grade. But the gauge will be performance in the course, not simply enrollment in it – an important distinction, he said.
The new assessments testing Common Core math standards are two years away. Until then, the current math tests, based on California math standards, will be given. However, the State Board will likely eliminate the General Math penalties now, in order to encourage districts to begin phasing in Common Core 8th grade math.
Roger Yoho, assessment and accountability director for Corona-Norco Unified, emphasized the importance of that in his testimony. “I have principals saying to me, ‘We want to get into Common Core, but we are still held accountable for the API.’ My reaction is to do what’s best for kids, but we still have to worry about API scores for a bunch of reasons.”