New twist to old debate on accelerated math

August 12, 2014

For the decade before the adoption of Common Core State Standards in 2010, the policy of the State Board of Education was to make Algebra I the standard course for 8th-graders so they could progress to Calculus in high school. California was distinct among states to do so, and results were decidedly mixed. The number of students taking Algebra I soared over that period, mostly among Hispanic and African-American students, with nearly two-thirds of students taking Algebra I or Geometry (about 8 percent of students) by 8th grade.

The proficiency rate on the state standardized test for Algebra increased to 46 percent in 2012. But that also meant that over half didn’t pass the test and 28 percent of students scored below basic and far below basic**– evidence that they were assigned Algebra I before they were ready. Reassigning them the same course in 9th grade didn’t work: only about one in five tested proficient the second time around.

They’re among the students whom Barabara Schallau, the math coordinator for East Side Union High School District in San Jose, predicts will do better in high school math under a new sequence of Common Core courses. After getting a grounding with elements of Algebra in Common Core 8th grade, they will take the first of three integrated math courses in 9th grade that combine Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, statistics and functions (the study of operations using variables to produce a single result).

With the switch to Common Core, the State Board of Education eliminated the policy – what state board President Michael Kirst characterized as a “minor branch of theology”– that it was critical in 8th grade to propel the majority of students toward advanced math. The state board’s neutrality, however, didn’t end the debate over acceleration – it just shifted it from Sacramento to local districts, where some districts are continuing what they’ve been doing, and others are experimenting with options in different grades, with more reliable criteria to determine who’s ready to accelerate.

The committee of California educators writing the math frameworks for Common Core, which the state board adopted last year, has strongly cautioned districts not to push students into accelerated courses in middle school too soon. Common Core 8th grade math is more rigorous than the pre-Algebra 8th grade math under the California standards, it noted.

Source: East Side Union High School District

East Side Union High School District students who take Math I, the first of three integrated math courses, as 9th graders can take Calculus as seniors if they take either summer courses or mini-courses during an extra period of the school day covering the “plus” or advanced standards. They would skip pre-Calculus and go directly to Advanced Placement Calculus AB.

“Decisions to accelerate students into the Common Core State Standards for higher mathematics before 9th grade should not be rushed. Placing students into an accelerated pathway too early should be avoided at all costs,”the appendix on course options reads.

Parents not familiar with Common Core may not understand the rationale for a more measured course progression in middle school and the differences in rigor between 8th grade Common Core and the old 8th grade math. “There needs to be more communicating with parents,” acknowledges Pamela Seki, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional development at Long Beach Unified, which is among the California districts furthest along in implementing the Common Core.

Last spring, 900 parents in the Los Gatos Union School District signed an online petition and jammed a series of board meetings when they heard the district was considering eliminating the option of taking Geometry in 8th grade. “If current and future students do not have it available, the lack of this program could affect the reputation that Los Gatos has for its commitment to top-quality education,” read the petition, pushed partly by realtors, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The superintendent and trustees said that parents misunderstood their intent. The district eventually adopted a three-track plan that included offering Common Core Algebra I and Geometry, along with 8th Grade Common Core, in 8th grade.

Some sort of acceleration is the only way for students to take at least one year of Calculus by the time they are seniors. Double acceleration would be needed to enroll in the follow-up course, Calculus BC, the goal of students aiming to major in science and engineering at top-flight colleges.

High school districts are considering a range of acceleration options for students to take calculus by their senior year ­or sooner: compacting three years of integrated math into two or offering double periods of math, such as Geometry and Algebra II for those districts offering the traditional sequence.

Under the new standards, it’s likely fewer students than before will end up taking an accelerated course in middle school, and that’s appropriate, say Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, and other Common Core advocates.

East Side Union will take another tack. Integrated math courses include optional “plus standards,” designed for science and engineering majors. By adding an extra daily mini-course to teach those standards, students will bypass pre-Calculus after taking Integrated Math III as juniors and take Calculus as seniors, Schallau said.

Unified and K-8 districts are exploring honors courses, which would compact three years into two years in sixth and seventh grades. Depending on whether a district offers an integrated or traditional sequence of courses, this would lead either to Integrated I or Common Core Algebra I in 8th grade. Long Beach also plans to give 7th graders who didn’t start acceleration in sixth grade a second chance with a summer bridge program leading to Algebra I in 8 th grade, Seki said.

Under the new standards, it’s likely fewer students than before will end up taking an accelerated course in middle school, and that’s appropriate, say Kirst and other Common Core advocates.

East Side Union’s seven feeder districts have agreed to offer the same Integrated I curriculum for accelerated students in 8th grade that high schools will offer in 9th grade. They will also use the same assessment, the Math Diagnostic Testing Project, developed by the University of California, to determine which students are ready for Integrated I in 8th grade. In Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara-based nonprofit ALearn and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation are offering free summer acceleration and remediation courses to more than 2,000 minority and low-income students entering 8th and 9th grades.

“It’s an equity issue,” said Manny Barbara, a retired superintendent who is vice president of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. “Will students, no matter where they go to school, have the same opportunity as those attending the more affluent districts?”

Under the California state standards, textbook publishers dictated what would be taught in accelerated courses, Seki said. Now, she added, there’s innovation, with different courses in different grades covering a range of standards, eventually offering lessons on what works best.

But the proliferation of options is also perplexing the state board as it considers whether and how to create standardized tests for high school. “We are grasping to think through all this,” Kirst said at the state board meeting last month.

Correction: An earlier version said that 29 percent of students scored far below basic. The correct figure is 28 percent scored a combination of below basic or far below basic. See comment by Ze’ev Wurman below.


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