Doubts over 8th grade algebra for all

When it comes to flip-flopping, forget the Republican primary and take a look at California’s vacillation on when students should learn algebra. Yesterday, a year and a half after the State Board of Education adopted new math standards, researchers, educators, and policymakers once again sparred over the wisdom of requiring Algebra I for most eighth graders.

When Phil Daro helped write California’s Common Core math standards, he was instructed to base them on evidence, not politics, and to take a close look at math education in the world’s top-performing countries. “What we saw, and what we learned, contradicts a lot of the assumptions on which California mathematics policy is built,” Daro told several hundred people attending Thursday’s Middle Grades Math conference at Stanford University.

The most elemental difference, said Daro, who co-directs UC Berkeley’s Tools for Change, is that even though Algebra I is considered the single most important mathematics subject, California rushes students through it when they’re still in middle school, while high-achieving countries spread it out over three years. “We’re saying let’s spend less time on Algebra I, the most important math; it doesn’t make sense,” Daro said.

8th grade students scoring proficient or better on Algebra I, by race. (Source:  SVEF) Click to enlarge
8th grade students scoring proficient or better on Algebra I, by race. (Source: SVEF) Click to enlarge

Seated at a table in the back of the meeting room, farthest away from the speakers, some of the heaviest hitters in California education glanced at each other and exchanged a quick whisper. Algebra I is a can of worms they’d like to see buried beneath a massive compost pile, preferably in a neighboring state.

It’s been dogging the state at least since the 1997 content standards, which included math standards only through seventh grade. Grades eight and up were organized around content tests, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.*   Citing an Education Week article, the report’s authors wrote that “the goal was to increase the number of students enrolled in Algebra I, not to mandate enrollment.”

More than a decade later, under pressure to comply with No Child Left Behind, the State Board of Education made Algebra I mandatory for eighth grade students. That led to a lawsuit, an injunction against the mandate, and flexibility for eighth graders to take Algebra I or an Algebra prep class. Then came Common Core, and California, in a preemptive move, adopted two sets of eighth grade math standards, pre-Algebra for the national standards, and Algebra I for the state.

So it’s understandable if Daro’s recommendation to go more slowly to make sure that students fully comprehend the material – sound policy or not – didn’t elicit any huzzahs from policymakers at the meeting.

The core reason for mandating Algebra I in eighth grade is equity and access for all to college prep courses. Supporters hoped it would stop the practice of tracking low-income and other underserved students away from the A-to-G classes required for admission to the University of California and California State University. But researchers at the meeting warned that the policy, as it’s being implemented, could backfire and make it harder for those students to be successful.

There’s no doubt that it has achieved that goal. According to the SVEF report, the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade jumped by 80 percent between 2003 and 2010, with the most dramatic increase among low-income, African American, and Latino students. As that number rises, so too does the number of students reaching proficiency on the Algebra I California Standards Test. Nearly two times as many eighth graders met that bar, according to Algebra Policy in California, published by EdSource.

Then the laws of physics kick in an there’s almost an equal and opposite reaction, with 1.5 times as many of the students scoring below or far below basic. Even though more eighth grade students are taking Algebra I, that doesn’t mean they’ve been equally prepared for it, said Neal Finkelstein, a senior research scientist at WestEd. “There are many patterns of students who are not succeeding early, and are continuing to not succeed later,” said Finkelstein.

Grade 8 algebra enrollment by race. (Source-SVEF) Click to enlarge.EdSource researcher Matt Rosin wanted to know what the chances were of a student who scored basic or below on the seventh grade California Standards test being put in Algebra I. When he analyzed algebra placements and test scores for nearly 70,000 eighth graders during the 2008-09 school year, he found that compared to middle class schools, more students at low-income schools were placed in Algebra I, and more of them scored basic or below on that state test.

“This is the achievement gap in action,” said Rosin. “Schools that have heard the call for greater access to Algebra I are answering the call, but they’re making decisions based on access, not on instruction and support.”

Others would disagree that standards alone are the issue. During a conversation with Daro after the conference, former State Board of Education president Ted Mitchell said teacher preparation is a problem, especially in elementary schools. He would bring in math specialists to help out.

Bruce Arnold seems to share that sentiment. He runs the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project at UC San Diego, where teachers learn to identify the specific reasons a student is having difficulty grasping a concept, and get ideas on how to teach that lesson differently.

If students misunderstand any of the prerequisite materials, that will stay with them and trip them up as they move to more advanced classes, explained Arnold. He falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to how much time to spend on the big concepts. Definitely not the three years that schools take in Singapore, however. “I would argue that students should take Algebra I as soon as they are ready,” said Arnold, “and that our goal should be to move students along as fast as they can be moved with success.”

* TOP-Ed is an editorially independent project of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation.