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No Algebra, No Graduation

Times Staff Writer

To Zeke Villalobos, x + y equals nothing but anxiety. He didn’t get algebra the first time he took it, and he’s having a hard time with it now.

But as a high school senior, the 16-year-old San Juan Capistrano boy has no choice.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 10, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Algebra question -- One sample question accompanying an article in Monday’s California section about a high school algebra graduation requirement had an incomplete answer. In addition to 73 and 15, another pair of numbers, -43 and -101, also solve the equations described in problem No. 4.

A California law passed in 2000 requires all high school students, starting with this year’s senior class, to complete Algebra I to graduate. There’s no wiggle room; special education students, English learners and those at continuation schools must all pass the class before they get their diplomas.

Lawmakers demanded the requirement after concluding that too many graduates lacked a foundation in math to succeed in the workplace or in higher education. At the time, some detractors protested that many students would not be able to meet the more rigorous standard and schools didn’t have enough money to provide additional support.

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But schools and students are adjusting, and the results are proving positive.

“I guess I had to be forced to do it, to make the effort to understand,” said Zeke, who attends Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo. He is one of 25 students enrolled in an algebra class reserved for seniors who have failed the district’s two-year course, and he acknowledges its value. “It’s what you need to survive out there and get a job.”

Many educators and lawmakers agree that algebra courses should be available to all students, not just those who are college-bound. For past generations of students, longtime teachers said, algebra was offered sporadically or not at all in low-income and heavily minority communities.

Closing the achievement gap between black and Latino children and their white peers can be done only if all students are held to the same standards, said Merle Price, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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Educators applaud the statewide application of the algebra requirement because it is forcing everyone, no matter their academic potential or handicap, to at least perform at the same minimal level when it comes to math.

“Watered-down [expectations] just won’t make it in this economy anymore,” he said. “The goal here is not to deprive kids of a diploma but to make the diploma meaningful.”

In most districts, officials said, just a handful of seniors are at risk of not meeting the algebra requirement. The majority of California students finish algebra before entering high school and most of the others learn algebra in a series of classes that, at some schools, may last up to three years, said Ron Fox, an administrator with the California Department of Education.

For example, Zeke is among fewer than 200 of the 3,000 seniors in the Capistrano Unified School District who need to take algebra this year. The new mandate had largely been ignored in the uproar over the high school exit exam graduation requirement, said educators around the state. The California Board of Education in July voted to postpone the test, originally intended to take effect with this year’s seniors, until the class of 2006 because of concerns about low passing rates and a desire to give struggling students more time to learn the test material.

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But the algebra requirement “had truly slipped by us,” said Lee Kucera, Zeke’s math teacher. “Now we’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and scrambling to get them passed. We want to make sure algebra is not what impedes these kids from getting on with their lives.”

Districts may need to pursue a variety of strategies, Kucera said, to ensure that students pass algebra. Those include putting seniors together in one class, team-teaching between special education and regular instructors, and extensive tutoring programs.

“We can’t change the standards, and we can’t change the requirements,” she said. Watching her students complete column after column of fraction review problems on a worksheet, she shrugged. “I’m not 100% convinced algebra is necessary for all students, but that’s the law.”

The students who are struggling most with algebra are the ones who ultimately will benefit the most by the graduation prerequisite, said Jerry White, director of curriculum for the Huntington Beach Union High School District. Some 10% to 20% of graduating seniors today would never have taken algebra a generation ago, White said. Instead, they would have enrolled in basic courses such as general and business math.

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“To say we shouldn’t require these skills because there is a certain segment of the population who will never understand these skills is wrong,” White said. “Everyone has a right to a basic set of skills.”

And students are rising to the algebra call, he said. “A lot are getting over the bar who we didn’t think would, in the beginning,” he said.

That includes students at Oxnard and Fountain Valley high schools, both of which have piloted programs to help special-ed students pass algebra.

At Oxnard, Ventura County’s largest high school with about 2,900 students, special-ed and regular students are combined in some algebra classes, with both a math and special-ed teacher on hand.

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The math teachers provide the algebra expertise, and the special-ed instructors suggest learning strategies for struggling kids, said Jeri Philbrick, who heads the math department at Oxnard High, which tested the program last year.

At Fountain Valley High, a summer program that drills students on basic algebra skills was launched three years ago for special-ed students and those with Ds and Fs in basic math. The program, called Math Prep, has been expanded to two other schools in the Huntington Beach Union High School District, and is credited with helping virtually every student pass algebra, said Nina Jones, a Fountain Valley teacher.

Some students struggled with simple multiplication when they started the class and by the end were solving algebraic equations, she said. “They were blown away by what they were able to do,” she said. “I don’t think they would have ever tried to go this far in math had it not been required for graduation and the exit exam.”

Like other districts, including Newport-Mesa Unified in Orange County and the Oxnard Union High School District, Los Angeles Unified has instituted two-year programs to slow the pace of traditional one-year algebra courses. Most high schools in the Los Angeles district offer support programs, including after-school tutoring, a self-paced Internet course and a summer session with five students per teacher.

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At the district’s year-round campuses, a new assistant principal position was created specifically to help students to meet the mandates, said Price, the LAUSD deputy superintendent.

The vast majority of students at the district’s 60 high schools will meet the algebra requirement, he said, but the district will continue to support those who don’t with summer school or the adult education program.

Santa Ana Unified has taken a different approach, eliminating the high schools’ two-year algebra class because students didn’t benefit from the extended course, said Pat Machado, the district’s interim area administrator.

Santa Ana students can take advantage of before- and after-school tutoring by local college students, and English learners can take a transitional algebra course before enrolling in Algebra I, she said.

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Some teachers said courses focus too tightly on state standards and don’t teach the thinking skills lawmakers intended students to learn. The graduation requirement emphasizes what the Oxnard district’s math resource teacher, Jim Short, considers the least important aspects of algebraic thinking.

“They focus on memorizing procedures and rules instead of problem solving and applications,” he said. “We would have a much easier time convincing kids this is a worthwhile thing to study if the standards were more in touch with real life.”

For example, Oxnard High teacher Philbrick’s students create algebraic formulas more meaningful than multiplying x by y. They solve word problems about day and night cell phone rates, and how long it would take an injured football player’s knee to heal given a certain rate of recovery.

Kucera and most of her students at Capistrano Valley High agreed that in condensed classes such as theirs, learning concepts is emphasized over nuts-and-bolts applications. Most of the students -- including an aspiring engineer and a would-be nurse -- said they didn’t understand how algebra might help them later in life.

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Zeke, the Capistrano Valley senior, wants to be a U.S. history teacher and recognizes that there will be much more math on the way to earning his credential. His math skills need work because he spent much of his childhood in rural Mexico, where he only occasionally attended school, and he didn’t begin learning math until he moved to the United States in seventh grade.

His class textbook differs from the one used in the school’s other algebra classes; it has less text and more basic equations. It also includes a wealth of worksheets to help students learn fractions, decimals and other concepts.

“We still cover the standards, but with less rigor,” said Kucera, who also teaches Advanced Placement statistics. “They don’t need to do those big monster equations to prove to me they can do the work.”

In Zeke’s class of 25, he is one of 11 students passing. Although he isn’t thrilled to be studying algebra, he said he is motivated to study because at stake is his high school graduation. “It’s not like I’m all, ‘Woo-hoo, I’m going to math,’ ” he said, “but I know I have to be here. And that whole having-to-pass-the-class thing makes it seem a lot easier than it ever has before.”

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