Algebra rule baffles many

GLENDALE — Some local and state educators are dismayed over the state board of education’s recent decision that, three years from now, will effectively require California students to take Algebra I in eighth grade.

The state board, which sets policy for kindergarten through 12th-grade education in areas such as standards and assessment, approved the change with an 8-1 vote during its meeting on Wednesday.

The move was supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who endorsed the change the day before the meeting.

“We must prepare our children for a knowledge-based economy in which algebra is the cornerstone,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a letter to state board of education President Theodore Mitchell.

But the change went against the recommendations of the California Department of Education staff.

“To me, we’re setting students up for failure,” State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said.

Out of the 1,142 middle schools in California, only 15 have all of their eighth-grade students enrolled in algebra, O’Connell said.

Presently, eighth-graders are placed in math classes based on their achievement levels and must pass algebra in order to get a high school diploma, according to the state education department.

The state board of education began looking at eighth-grade math requirements several months ago, when the U.S. Department of Education informed the state that the General Mathematics Test taken by many eighth-graders was not properly aligned with the math standards for those students.

The state education department suggested that the board of education approve a revision of that test as a fix. Instead, the board opted to have all eighth-graders take the state’s Algebra I test.

Several local educators and education policy makers said they regarded the decision as ill-founded.

Bonnie Gould, a math curriculum teacher specialist with the Glendale Unified School District, said the policy change wasn’t good for children.

Students who take algebra before they’re ready, struggle with it, and then have to repeat the class, which can develop a distaste for math that could have been avoided, Gould said.

“What we’ve been working on really hard is to make sure children are successful,” she said.

In 2007, about 49% of eighth-graders across the state took Algebra I, but only about 38% of those students passed the state’s Algebra I standards test, Gould said.

In contrast, in Glendale schools, about 23% of eighth-graders took Algebra I in the same year, but 95% of those students passed the state’s subject test.

The difference was whether the focus was on getting students to take the class or getting students to really learn the concepts, Gould said.

The new requirement could also create problems down the line for high school students, who would effectively have to take both Geometry and Algebra II in high school, Gould said.

Algebra II is a difficult course that some students have real trouble with, she said.

The new eighth-grade math requirement is slated to take effect in three years.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Ted Bunch, a Burbank Unified School District board of education member who taught eighth grade for 26 years.

Some students aren’t ready for Algebra I in eighth grade, and making them take the class anyway won’t solve that, he said.

“If you push a student into something before they’re quite ready for it, then that’s a problem,” he said.

The better way to teach is to determine what students need and work from there, he said.

Glendale Unified School District board of education president Joylene Wagner said she was surprised by how quickly such a major policy decision was made.

“It’s just one more hurdle that we need to scramble for,” she said.

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