Judge blocks state algebra mandate

A Sacramento Superior Court judge Friday blocked a controversial state plan requiring that all California eighth-graders be tested in algebra. The state’s algebra mandate would have been the most ambitious in the nation.

The state Board of Education approved the high-reaching goal in July as a way to push school districts into having all students enroll in algebra by the end of the eighth grade. State board president Ted Mitchell vowed to appeal the decision.

Currently, just over 50% of the state’s eighth-graders take algebra, and 42% of those score proficient or better. Those numbers are trending upward, possible evidence that efforts in recent years to focus on algebra have reaped rewards. The new mandate requiring algebra tests for all eighth-graders would have taken effect in three years.


Critics characterized that target as unrealistic, even counterproductive.

“I strongly believe that algebra is, in fact, necessary,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. Still, he said, “We cannot just tell students and teachers the end goal and simply expect them to get there on their own. Without additional funding, we’re simply setting our students and our system up for failure.”

O’Connell, along with the California Teachers Assn. and organizations representing school district leaders, had sued the state Board of Education. Its members had approved the new rules under last-minute pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose spokeswoman said Friday that he “remains steadfast in his commitment to increasing academic standards.”

Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang ruled that the state board probably adopted the policy without proper public notice. And state board members also may have overstepped their legal authority.

Chang indicated that state educators might not be ready to achieve 100% success in algebra. She noted that nearly one-half of all fifth-graders are not proficient in basic math. And “approximately one-third of the state’s middle-school Algebra I teachers are either underprepared or teach out-of-field” -- that is, they are not adequately trained algebra teachers.

Meeting the mandate would require the state to hire 3,000 more qualified teachers and offer substantial additional training to 1,000 underprepared math instructors, said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn.

O’Connell’s staff has estimated that the requirement would cost $3.1 billion at a time when the state is slashing even larger amounts from its budget as a result of the economy.

Supporters of the algebra policy expressed disappointment. “It’s incomprehensible that we have to argue about teaching kids more,” said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy and research group.

Incoming Los Angeles Schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said a key problem is that in California “algebraic concepts are not embedded” properly in the lower grades. But he cited recent progress at Virgil and Berendo middle schools as cause for optimism, adding that L.A.'s push in algebra would continue unabated.

“We’re not backing off,” he said.