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Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers
Out of the Equation
California courts educational failure if it does away with eighth-grade algebra.
September 14, 2012

A bill sitting on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would upend 15 years of achievement in mathematics by California students. Sponsored by Oakland Democratic senator Loni Hancock, Senate Bill 1200 would consign the Golden State’s eighth-grade students to a weakened, one-size-fits-all, pre-algebra curriculum prescribed by the Common Core national standards. No longer would qualified California eighth-graders have the opportunity to take Algebra I, as do their peers in high-performing countries. SB 1200 is so wrongheaded, in fact, that it would prohibit schools from offering any options in mathematics, even to high school students. The bill insists that only “one set of standards” be offered at “each grade level” across the entire K–12 span.

Eliminating Algebra I in eighth grade will put California at a competitive disadvantage. In an earlier time, algebra may have been necessary only for the college-bound. In today’s economy, more advanced mathematics is a prerequisite not only for college admission, but also for most vocational and technical-training programs.

In this case, one-size-fits-all represents a giant step backward. Since the late 1990s, California has worked to bring its eighth-grade students’ math achievement to a level comparable with high-performing, economically successful countries such as the East Asian “Tigers.” Children in Singapore and South Korea, for example, master introductory algebra in eighth grade or earlier. California’s efforts paid off: today, the state boasts the highest percentage of students taking algebra by eighth grade in the United States—68 percent, a fourfold increase over 15 years. Fifty-three percent of California eighth-grade algebra takers tested “proficient” or “advanced” on the California Standards Test this past academic year, up from just under 40 percent in 2002.

Even more impressive was that this success wasn’t limited to white students. The number of black students testing “proficient” or “advanced” has increased fourfold over the past decade, almost twice as fast as the entire student cohort; among Latinos and students from low-income households, the improvement has been fivefold. In short, California’s success with algebra proves the effectiveness of its current math approach—not just in eighth grade, but in preparing students in the upper elementary grades as well. Changing it now will hurt black and Latino students the most.

From the outset, California education officials recognized that improving student achievement so substantially would take time. The state overhauled its entire math curriculum. New instructional plans introduced pre-algebra concepts as early as third grade. School districts augmented on-the-job math training for teachers, approved math textbooks that matched the curriculum, and revised the state accountability system to include teacher supports and rewards for teaching Algebra I by eighth grade.

Enter the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which eliminate eighth-grade Algebra I. Common Core allows only for pre-algebra in the eighth grade. Clearly, at least in this instance, the national standards are weaker than California’s state standards—which emphasize pre-algebra concepts in the early grades with the goal of getting as many eighth-graders as possible into Algebra I.

Conceived in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and made public a year later, the Common Core standards were supposed to be voluntary. When California was asked to join the initiative, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—properly concerned about maintaining his state’s rigorous standards—said the Golden State would not approve the standards “until we have determined that they meet or exceed our own.” Accordingly, the California State Academic Content Standards Commission determined in 2010 that retaining Algebra I in eighth grade was essential and suggested dual options—both authentic Algebra I and the Common Core’s pre-algebra. The state board of education approved the commission’s recommendation in August 2010.

SB 1200 would throw away California’s hard-won gains, prohibiting access to a challenging curriculum that students have demonstrated they can master. The loss of the state’s rigorous math standards will ensure that far too many of California’s students fail to fulfill their potential. No child rises to low expectations.

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