For nearly two years, California's unwieldy eighth grade math standards have lain untouched like an unexploded IED, a roadside bomb of the math wars. But with middle and high school math teachers clamoring for guidance and new assessments two-plus years away, the Legislature and State Board must soon answer the question, What about Algebra I in eighth grade?
Faced with political pressure from Gov. Schwarzenegger and bound by restrictions of the Legislature, the California State Academic Standards Commission and the State Board couldn't resolve the issue in July and August 2010, when they adopted the Common Core standards in math and English language arts. A strong-willed minority of Schwarzenegger appointees to the Commission who had a hand in designing the 1997 state math standards - Ze'ev Wurman, a Palo Alto engineer, and Hoover Institution scholar Bill Evers - wanted to make Algebra I the default curriculum in eighth grade. The majority supported Common Core's eighth grade standards, which introduce elements of algebra and geometry with the goal of sending students to high school better prepared for Algebra I and higher math.
So the Commission, whose job it was to advise the State Board, adopted essentially two courses worth of standards, the 28 Common Core eighth grade math standards and an Algebra I course with an intimidating 72 standards - an amalgam of a few of the old California Algebra I standards and Common Core high school algebra standards on top of Common Core eighth grade math. ***
The State Board, restricted by the Legislature to either adopt or reject - but not change - the package, adopted them intact on Aug. 1, 2010. That was the deadline for approval in order to get points for Race to the Top, which Schwarzenegger was pushing.
At that point, the Commission went out of business, leaving the State Board with no authority to modify the standards. Since then, eighth grade math has been a void. It's not part of the Common Core interim materials adoption process, and there's been confusion over how to create curriculum frameworks and teacher training for that grade.
A NEW COMMISSION'S CHARGE
Fast forward to this past Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee and the 7-2 passage of SB 1200, authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, on behalf of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. It would establish an 11-member standards review commission charged with making recommendations to the State Board for modifying eighth grade math standards by July 2013.
The Legislature and Torlakson will name seven of the 11 members, with Gov. Brown naming the other four. The Commission and ultimately the State Board must decide whether eighth grade Common Core or a new Algebra I will be the default course - and how California will assess any standards that are outside of the Common Core. But it's clear, from the language of the bill, what the Legislature's intent would be: Common Core, not Algebra I, in eighth grade for most students.
As the committee staff analysis of SB 1200 notes, the bill requires that the new commission's recommendations and the State Board's modifications ensure:
RETREAT FROM UNIVERSAL ALGEBRA IN EIGHTH GRADE
Wurman said Thursday that passage of the bill would confirm what he had predicted after the adoption of Common Core standards: Within a few years, there will be a sharp decline in the number of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade, leading to fewer students taking Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Only students who are tutored or go to private schools that ignore Common Core will take Algebra in eighth grade, he said. "Private school kids will have calculus. Public school students will be less competitive for select private universities."
California is one of the few states that adopted a policy of universal Algebra in eighth grade, and by some measures, it has been a marked success. Last year, two-thirds of eighth graders took either Algebra or Geometry - compared with only a third in 2003. Despite that doubling, the proportion of students who tested proficient rose from 39 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in 2011.
But consider the majority who aren't proficient on the standardized test and even some who are, said Scott Farrand, a math professor at California State University, Sacramento, and leader of those on the Academic Standards Commission who favored Common Core math. "Tens of thousands of students now in Algebra I cannot add fractions," he said. "The push for Algebra I is failing lots and lots of students." Many of those forced to repeat Algebra I in ninth grade get frustrated and develop a dislike of math, he said. Common Core, with a more logical sequence and focus on understanding concepts starting in lower grades, will better prepare most students to succeed in Algebra and beyond, he said. "We want to build a system that allows them to move forward." That's why he disputes Wurman's contention that fewer students, including minority students, will pursue majors in STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - in college.
CAN IT BE FIXED?
Wurman and Farrand agree that the 72-standard Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission created is unmanageable, but they disagree as to how it came to be that way and whether it's fixable..
Wurman and Evers argued for pushing down a number of Common Core standards to lower grades, from eighth grade to seventh and seventh to sixth, in order to prepare students for Algebra. But, with a handful of exceptions, the Commission refused, because members said, they didn't want to tamper with Common Core's order and sequence. (What to do with these non-conforming, acceleration standards will be the job of a separate group reporting to the State Board, the Instructional Quality Commission. It will create detailed grade by grade curriculum frameworks.)
By creating no on-ramp to Algebra, Wurman said, "we ended up with a fake algebra option that is infeasible." At this point, the intellectually honest thing for the State Board to say is, "Our expectations of 8th graders have dropped. We screwed up and do not offer Algebra as an option." The Algebra I course that the Academic Standards Commission designed would be taught in ninth grade.
Farrand said that the Algebra I course was voluminous because the Commission believed it had the authority only to add to Common Core standards, not eliminate them. A manageable Algebra I course for eighth grade can be created, he said, by pulling out some less related and duplicative standards, including probability and statistics. There should be an option for those students in a position to accelerate, he said. How it might be assessed is another issue for the new commission. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the federal government insisted on one test administered to all eighth graders. But that policy could change, because it's not in anyone's interest to discourage students from taking Algebra early.
Farrand and Wurman agree that the next Commission won't be as contentious as the last one. For starters, neither Wurman nor Evers will be appointed. "I'm hoping the Commission will do something other than put on armor and fight," Farrand said.
"No serious changes will be made to the standards. There won't be anyone willing to go to the barricades" to defend rigorous California standards, Wurman said.
*** Here are the Common Core Standards as adopted in California. Start on page 34 for eighth grade. For the new Algebra I course, see page 36. Common Core high school standards are in yellow. Common Core eighth grade math standards are in green. California Algebra standards that have been included in the new Algebra I are in purple.