By Barry Garelick
The San Francisco Unified School District made the news recently when they decided to eliminate first-year algebra for eighth graders entirely. Algebra will now be offered only as a high school course in that school district.
The decision is not without controversy and many parents have been protesting, saying that it limits the choices qualified students may have. The other side of the argument is that too many students who were unprepared to take algebra in eighth grade were pushed to take it, resulting in many students failing the course.
Of course it is a mistake to allow students to take algebra if they are not mathematically prepared. Students need to have mastery of fractions, percentages, decimals, ratios, and negative numbers and to be able to solve a variety of word problems. But if a student is qualified to take algebra in eighth grade and would do well in it, why not give the student that choice?
But a growing trend among school districts these days is to limit (or as in SFUSD, eliminate entirely) those choices under the guise that Common Core doesn’t encourage acceleration. Districts prefer and think it better that students take algebra starting in high school. Common Core, however, defines four pathways that may be taken, one of which allows for taking algebra earlier than ninth grade:
A “compacted” version of the Traditional pathway where no content is omitted, in which students would complete the content of 7th grade, 8th grade, and the High School Algebra I course in grades 7 (Compacted 7th Grade) and 8 (8th Grade Algebra I), which will enable them to reach Calculus or other college level courses by their senior year. While the K-7 CCSS effectively prepare students for algebra in 8th grade, some standards from 8th grade have been placed in the Accelerated 7th Grade course to make the 8th Grade Algebra I course more manageable. (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_Mathematics_Appendix_A.pdf )
Many schools and districts had such a pathway in place prior to Common Core. Despite this, schools and districts are making it more difficult for students to qualify for the “compacted” version. I witnessed this first hand last year when I was teaching pre-algebra and algebra at a middle school in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in California during a time when school districts were making the transition to Common Core.
I recall a person from the school district office, who I will call Sally, talking to a group of us math teachers in advance of a “math night” to be held for parents to explain the District’s policy on “compacted” math pathways. Sally described how the District was phasing out the “accelerated math” in which qualified students in eighth grade — and even some in seventh grade — were allowed to take Algebra 1.
She did say they were working on pathways for those students who may be “really, truly” gifted and for whom algebra in seventh or eighth grade may be appropriate. This was likely not going to sit well with some parents, she said.
“There’s been a lot of parent pushback,” she sighed. “I imagine we’ll have the usual Debbie Downers and Negative Nancies in the audience on ‘math night’. But I want to make two things clear: that there’s no shame in taking Grade 8 math; under Common Core it’s equivalent to the traditional Algebra 1.” (This is debatable based on what I’ve observed in Grade 8 math classes) “And secondly, placement in eighth grade Algebra 1 will be more difficult. Fewer students will qualify – Common Core is very challenging.”
This all sounds plausible if you believe that Common Core gets into “deeper learning”. But what it really means is that students will now get a smattering of algebra in eighth grade, and the rest of it in ninth, thus taking two years to do what used to be done in one – and leaving some topics left out. Also, it raises the question that if Common Core algebra is so much deeper than a traditional algebra course, why is the traditional algebra course reserved for an elite corps of eighth grade students?
Sally went on. “Procedures don’t stick with kids; they forget them. They need to learn critical thinking and problem solving.” This brought her discussion to a new test the District would be administering to sixth and seventh graders for algebra placement purposes: the SVMI (Silicon Valley Math Initiative) assessments. These were a new series of tests to be given in addition to placement tests that had been given for years — the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP). The MDTP was developed by California State University and University of California. It is a straightforward multiple choice exam which has had a good track record for accurately placing students in Algebra 1 for eighth grade. (Districts use them on a voluntary basis; they are not required to use them.)
The new test, which had never been given in the district previously, –was written by a group called the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI). And while the title of the group conjures images of people of high calling in math, science and engineering who reside in Silicon Valley, it is actually a group of math reform types funded through the reform-minded Noyce Foundation, and who believe in 1) authentic assessments, and 2) themselves – and not necessarily in that order.
“For this new assessment, students will be required to use their prior knowledge to solve new types of problems – types they’ve never seen before,” Sally explained. I spoke up at this point and asked, “If it’s never been given in the District before, how is it going to be considered in making the decision for placement?
“That’s something the District is going to have to determine once we see the results.” The only guidance I was given eventually was that because it’s a new test, it won’t be counted as heavily. Though sounding like it answered my question, it didn’t.
Discussion continued about pathways to calculus by twelfth grade. Students who take Algebra 1 in ninth grade and who wanted to take AP Calculus in twelfth grade could double up their math courses during tenth grade. There! Every question that a Debby Downer or Nervous Nancy could ask was covered!
The explanation that the SVMI test would not be counted as heavily as the MDTP meant nothing to my students, which was no surprise since it didn’t mean all that much to me either. My pre-algebra seventh graders knew it was not good news. And when it came time to administer the test, they were horrified. It contained problems that were tedious as well as some that were poorly posed. If the tests had been used as “formative” assessments to guide classroom instruction and learning, I would have less objection. Specifically, if there were no names attached and they were scored by people not associated with the classroom to be returned to the teacher as discussion items, that would be useful. As actual assessment down to the individual student level — to be used as a filter disguised as placement — it is shameful.
As far as my eighth grade algebra classes were concerned, they had been “grandfathered” in, and had been placed in the algebra class solely on the basis of the MDTP results. (Students had to score higher than 80% on that test in order to place into algebra the next year). I know there may have been a few parents who pushed to get their children into the algebra class. But from what I could see in my algebra classes, with the exception of about 3 or 4 students out of 60, they were doing well, with most getting A’s and B’s. From my perspective, the MDTP was an effective placement tool. But the allure of Algebra 1 in eighth grade did have the potential of creating a student elite, now made even more so by the additional hurdle of the ill-conceived SVMI exam.
I recall in one of my pre-algebra classes a very bright girl named Gail who said she hoped she placed into Algebra 1. (She in fact scored higher than 80 percent on the MDTP, and did well on the SVMI test.) “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said to the girl who sat behind her. That kind of attitude is probably a dominant factor in causing some school districts to react by opening up algebra in eighth grade for all students no matter how weak their preparation. We’ve seen that such a policy is a mistake. The opposite reaction is San Francisco Unified’s “nobody gets to take algebra until high school” policy.
Other school districts such as mine restricted entry as much as possible through their exclusionary tactics (which also kept down the number of students taking geometry in eighth and ninth grades. At this writing, there are other districts, including the William S. Hart Union High School District that serves the City of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, which is using a test written by a math teacher to decide who gets to take algebra in eighth grade. The term “truly gifted” and “the elite” have been used by various teachers to describe the students who qualify.) The eighth grade traditional Algebra 1 class has become an endangered species open only to a newly formed and very small elite.
During my assignment at the middle school (the 2013-14 school year) about 300 students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in the entire District. During the 2014-15 school year, the number dropped substantially to 46. Many of the rest would have otherwise qualified, but for the hurdle imposed by SVMI. By telling my students the explanation I was offered — that the SVMI test would not be counted as heavily as the MDTP — I had unwittingly lied to them. They were now part of the larger and growing class of Gail’s “stupid people.”
Ironically, the policies of San Francisco’s and San Luis Coastal’s school districts will have exactly the opposite effect than what was intended. Bright, well-prepared students whose parents have the information and the means will find other options for their children. Other students, especially lower-socioeconomic children from low-education communities, will be boxed out of advancing themselves through public education. For this group, algebra will be a watered down Common Core version in ninth grade — all in the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good.
Barry Garelick has written extensively about math education in various publications including The Atlantic, Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the U.S. EPA and is teaching middle and high school math in California. He has written a book about his experiences as a long- term substitute in a high school and middle school in California: “Teaching Math in the 21st Century”.