New algebra rule met with criticism

The new California policy that requires algebra in the eighth grade will set up unprepared students for failure while holding back others with solid math skills, a report has concluded.

These predictions, based on national data, come in the wake of an algebra mandate that the state Board of Education, under pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, adopted in July. That decision won widespread praise from some reform advocates and the Bush administration, putting California out front in a national debate over improving mathematics instruction.

The policy also led to a lawsuit filed this month by groups representing school districts and school administrators. They contend that the state board adopted the new rules illegally. Their underlying concern is that the algebra policy is unworkable and unfunded.

The new study, to be released Monday by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., looked at who is taking eighth-grade algebra and how they are doing.

There was some ostensibly good news. Nationwide, more students are taking algebra than before. Over five years, the percentage of eighth-graders in advanced math — algebra or higher — went up by more than one-third. In total, about 37 percent of all U.S. students took advanced math in 2005, the most recent year in the analysis.

Yet some 120,000 of these students — about 8 percent — are scoring in the lowest 10 percent on the eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many thousands more are performing well below grade level.

And when students perform poorly in a math course where they don't belong, no one benefits, said Tom Lawless, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Across the country, "You have 120,000 kids sitting in algebra and geometry classes and they don't know how to multiply and divide," Lawless said. "That's an absurd situation. They're not going to learn anything. And the kids who are sitting next to them, who are well prepared, are not going to learn anything either" because their learning will be slowed.

On average, there are at least two students in every eighth-grade algebra class with second-grade math skills. That number rises in urban districts where such students are more likely to attend overcrowded schools with teachers who are less experienced and less likely to have math degrees or college-level advanced math. These students also are disproportionately low-income minorities.

For many, algebra has become a civil-rights issue. Students who take algebra early have a leg up on college and beyond. And minorities and the poor have a glaringly lower enrollment rate in early algebra. But just taking the course is not enough.

As evidence, Lawless pointed to the District of Columbia, which rates near the top in eighth-grade algebra enrollment and last on the math portion of the eighth-grade national assessment. Near the top in math achievement are Vermont and North Dakota, which enroll a comparatively small percentage of students in advanced math. There is no correlation nationwide between eighth-grade algebra policies and performance in algebra, Lawless said.

Lawless attributed California's incremental progress to improved curriculum and standards. In 2008, 42 percent of eighth-graders in algebra tested as proficient, compared with 38 percent the year before. And in 2002 less than one-third of eighth-graders took the class. Today, just over half do.

The underlying goal is learning algebra, Lawless said. And that should be reinforced by adding more-difficult algebra questions to the state's mandatory high school exit exam. He said the real work needs to be accomplished in elementary school, so students are ready for algebra.

The new California policy grew out of efforts to create a math test for all eighth-graders that would satisfy federal officials. The state could have developed a new test that incorporated less-challenging algebraic concepts.

But critics characterized this approach as "algebra lite," a watering-down of math instruction. Intensely lobbied from all sides, Schwarzenegger decided, just before the state board met, that all eighth-graders should take a full algebra test. And the governor-appointed state board granted his wish.

This last-minute decision is the basis for a lawsuit by the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators. They argue that the state board failed to vet the algebra policy, as required by law, and also illegally circumvented the state process for changing curriculum standards.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said he would need more than $3 billion to get schools ready for mandatory eighth-grade algebra by 2011. Such funding is unlikely given the state's budget woes.

State board member Yvonne Chan, a school principal, sided with Schwarzenegger. But even though she requires algebra of all eighth-graders, she said that only 30 percent are testing as proficient at her learning center in suburban Los Angeles. She said she wished she could afford smaller classes, grouped by ability, where teachers could slow down and re-teach difficult material.

"And the shortage of math teachers exacerbates whatever you want to do," Chan said. "Everybody knows there needs to be resources. That has been very clear from Day 1."

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