California Gives Up on Algebra For All in 8th Grade

As states adjust to the new Common Core standards, California is relaxing its math requirements by permitting 8th graders to take either Algebra I or a pre-Algebra math course. The San Jose Mercury-News’ Sharon Noguchi reports that reactions from around the state are mixed, as some cheer and some worry that racial inequalities will be easier to mask.

For 15 years, California has required all 8th graders to enroll in first-year algebra, but Common Core standards encourage an alternative course that has more math and less algebra. The state’s Board of Education unanimously voted to accept this new arrangement.

The years of requiring Algebra I in 8th grade produced some signs of success, but there are reasons to believe that many students will welcome the option of enrolling in a less advanced course.

Supporters welcome the change as more in line with current practice, of schools offering two tracks of math for eighth-graders. But critics fear that the new standard will let schools avoid offering rigorous courses for all. They point to a report released last week showing that some schools are not placing black and Latino students in advanced math courses even when they’re prepared.

The problem is that top colleges expect applicants to complete a calculus course in high school, so that if geometry remains as a full year course, the sequence leading college preparation requires five years, not four. Students who do not begin this sequence in 8th grade can catch up by taking two math courses at the same time, but it is not common. It’s more likely that they will not arrive at graduation fully prepared for top-ranked universities.

The key question is whether requiring students to enroll in a course that they may not be conceptually ready for helps or hurts them. Enrolling in algebra is not the same as either understanding or passing the course. Retaking it sets the student back in the math sequence, and it may not even repair the damage of spending 8th grade feeling lost:

Some say despite its goals, forcing too many students to take algebra in eighth grade has doomed them to fail in math. In Santa Clara County, for instance, two years ago only 44 percent of middle school students tested proficient in math; the figure was only 24 percent for Latino students. And studies show that almost 80 percent of students who retake algebra fail again.

But those who criticize the state’s decision to permit a slower track say that some school districts use subjective judgments in placing minority students into math classes below the level where they have objectively tested. If they were not forced to enroll these students in algebra, they might slip into holding back black and Latino students routinely. San Mateo and Santa Clara county school districts have been notified that there are civil rights concerns in the patterns of class placement for their minority students. The districts say that there is a simple answer: stop subjective placements that lead to holding kids back.

Sequoia, which serves students from Belmont to Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, found that more than 100 students had been mistakenly placed in classes below the level at which they had tested. For example, a student may have done well in an eighth-grade algebra class but been re-enrolled in the same class in ninth grade, Marchbanks said.

Placing students strictly according to grade and test scores should stop discrimination. Schools will also need to develop catch-up tracks for students who were not ready for algebra in 8th grade, but who want to catch up and complete calculus by the end of high school.

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