It's final: State Board shifts policy on eighth grade Algebra

January 17, 2013

The State Board of Education ended a decade-long controversial policy of pushing eighth graders to take Algebra I when members voted unanimously Wednesday to strip California’s Algebra I standards from the state’s eighth grade math standards.

Those standards will now mirror the national Common Core standards, which do not include Algebra I for eighth graders. The State Board will create curriculum options to accelerate math-taking in middle school and high school and to leave it up to local districts to determine who’s eligible for them. About two-thirds of eighth graders enrolled in Algebra I last year. That number is likely to decline; supporters of Common Core argue that many will be better off taking it a year later.

Board members stressed that the new approach is not a reversal but a more nuanced policy encouraging Algebra I in eighth grade for students with the skills to handle it and a vote of confidence in Common Core’s more gradual approach to algebra mastery.

Ilene Straus said the goal should be to encourage students to take Algebra I when they are ready.

“The intent is not to water down standards but to deepen rigor,” said Ilene Straus, the vice president of the Board, who is a former school principal. “The concern of some in the field is that they don’t want to lose incentives for students to take algebra, but not (for them to take the course) before they are ready.”

The board’s vote resolves 2½ years of uncertainty. Facing a deadline in August 2010, previous members of the State Board adopted an amalgam of Common Core and California math standards that reflected the division between those who favored Common Core’s approach to math – incorporating fewer concepts, developed in depth, leading up to a full Algebra I course in ninth grade – and those who favored universal Algebra I in eighth grade.

Some seventh and sixth grade Common Core standards were pushed down to a lower grade to create a pathway for students to take  Algebra I in eighth grade. The eighth grade standards adopted in 2010 consisted of two full sets of standards: eighth grade Common Core, including some algebra concepts like functions, and a full set of the old California Algebra I standards. This apparently put the state in conflict with the federal government’s requirement under the No Child Left Behind law that states offer only one set of standards per grade. It also created confusion for committees creating curriculum guides or frameworks and criteria for textbooks and materials.

Last year the Legislature jumped in to restore order. Its passage of SB 1200 also foreshadowed this week’s vote. It authorized the State Board to amend math standards to eliminate duplication, save expense (no more unique California standards) and adopt a Common Core version of Algebra. That’s what the Board voted 10-0 to do yesterday.

In providing an incentive for districts to enroll students who might not otherwise have taken the course, California’s current policy of docking API scores of schools that don’t offer Algebra I in eighth grade has proved to be controversial and, by some measures, very successful.

As Board member Trish Williams (the former executive director of EdSource) noted, in the past nine years the percentage of African American enrollment in eighth grade Algebra went from 24 percent to 60 percent, while those testing proficient on the California Standards Test (CST) doubled to 36 percent. For Latinos, enrollment nearly tripled to 63 percent, while the proficiency rate also doubled, to 42 percent.

For minorities that had been denied access to a course leading to college, she said, the “social justice concerns are not insignificant.”

But at the same time, Williams and others acknowledged that 60 percent of the eighth grade minority students in Algebra I did not test proficient on the CST. Many were required to repeat the course; of those, only one in five ended up scoring proficient on the CST. And if they did get a passing grade in Algebra I, they then “hit a wall in Algebra II,” becoming discouraged or failing the course.

Bill Honig, right, and Tom Adams lay out the strategy for Common Core at State Board meeting (click to enlarge).

There is no disagreement that eighth grade Common Core math will be more challenging than the course now taken by students not enrolled in Algebra I. “We cannot call it pre-algebra,” said Bill Honig, chair of the Instructional Quality Commission, which is guiding the implementation of Common Core. “It is not a watered-down course; it is demanding.”

Honig and supporters of Common Core are confident that students who take Common Core eighth grade math will be better prepared to succeed in ninth grade, when they will take Common Core’s version of Algebra I. In his testimony before the State Board, Mark Sontag, curriculum coordinator for math and science in Irvine Unified, said that a decade under the current California math standards produced “a generation of students that were technicians rather than mathematical thinkers.” Under Common Core,  students will understand and be able to explain math concepts, he said.

Paths for acceleration

Students identified as candidates for Algebra I in eighth grade may start accelerating their way through the standards in sixth grade, under one possible scenario (click to enlarge).

Over the next several months, the committee creating the math curriculum frameworks will create the pathways that districts could adopt to accelerate math so that students will be ready for Calculus. One option could be to offer Algebra I in eighth grade; another could be to combine two years of high school math into one, as Massachusetts is planning. Publishers will be asked to include accelerated math in the materials they design, said Tom Adams, the Department of Education’s director of curriculum frameworks  and instructional resources.

But those who advocated eighth grade Algebra dismissed promises of alternative pathways. Doug McRae, a retired testing specialist from Monterey and frequent critic of the state’s policies on testing and accountability, said that the Board should have insisted on clear language in the standards stressing acceleration to Algebra I. He also disputed Adams’ and Honig’s claim that the federal government, for accountability purposes under NCLB, will permit the state to offer only one set of standards with one test per grade. Massachusetts is designing a second test for those taking Algebra I in eighth grade that will meet federal government’s technical requirements, he said.

“What you test for is what you teach,” said McRae. If Algebra I isn’t tested in eighth grade, then districts will take the path of least resistance and not encourage students to take it.

Patricia Rucker says the State Board must delve into how districts decide who takes Algebra I.

Districts or perhaps individual math teachers in each school will ultimately decide who’s ready for Algebra I or another accelerated course in eighth grade. The State Board’s policy will be neutral, without incentives.

But Board member Patricia Rucker reminded the Board that decisions by local educators about whether to place students in Algebra I have been failing the majority of students, so it’s not sufficient to say the Board has no role in the outcome. What was in the district’s placement decision that resulted in a student failing? she said. “We need to know. We don’t want kids coming out saying, ‘Math is not for me’ or ‘I am horrible in math,’ because we started them too soon or without the supports they need.”


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