Sunday, November 16, 2008

Algebra Plan in California Halted

On Tuesday, October 28, 2008, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered the California State Board of Education to postpone its plan to test all 8th grade students in Algebra.

The last minute decision for the test, made by the board in July, had been pushed by Governor Schwarzenegger and was opposed by California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell.

The History of the Trend

In 1990 only about a sixth of eighth graders were enrolled in an algebra course. The Clinton administration, in response to America's poor showing in math relative to other developed nations, made enrolling all students in an algebra course by the 8th grade a national goal. Robert Moses, founder of the U.S. Algebra Project, added to the movement by claiming the issue to be "The New Civil Right".

The campaign continued and the enrollment of eighth graders in algebra rose from 16% in 199o to 24% in 2000. The trend proceeded into the next decade and by 2007, 31 percent of all 8th graders were taking advanced math (algebra or above).

According to a recently published Brown Center report, the push for universal enrollment of eighth graders in algebra, is based on an equity argument and is not based on empirical evidence. From the point of view of the equity movement, "democratizing eighth grade algebra promotes social justice", advancing students who had not been able to previously take advanced math, particularly students of color and students from poor families.

The Brown Center of Education Policy, part of the Brookings Institution, used NAEP data (National Assessment of Educational Progress) to investigate the ramifications of increasing the percentage of students enrolled in advanced math classes by the eighth grade.

The Findings of the Brown Center Report

The typical eighth grader knows more math today than in 2000, but the typical eighth grader in advanced math knows less.

The Brown Center decided to look at the students scoring in the 10th percentile and lower on the NAEP math test. In 2000, 8.0% of these "low-achieving" students were enrolled in advanced math courses. By 2005, the rate of low-achieving students had risen to 28.6%. The report calls these students "the misplaced students". In the same time period "high-achieving" students, enrolled in advanced math courses, dropped from 27.0% to 20.0%.

The phenomenon "has been viewed as an accomplishment, not a cause for worry". The low achieving 8th grade students score an average of 211 on the NAEP math test. This is 27 scale points below the national average for fourth grade students. Since 11 scale points on the NAEP test is equivalent to approximately one grade level, the misplaced students are functional at a second grade level, about 7 grade levels below fellow students in the same courses.

Fractions and are a particular problem for the misplaced students. Knowledge of fractions, an elementary school subject, is essential for success in advance level math courses.

Misplaced students are more likely to come from poor families and are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. The schools with higher percentages of misplaced students tend to be large and urban. The schools with higher percentages of misplaced students also tend to shun tracking (placing students by ability). The teachers of misplaced students are more likely to have taught for less than five years, are less likely to hold a regular or advanced teaching certificate, and are less likely to have majored in mathematics.

Referring to these schools, the report states, "Let us not forget the hundreds of thousands of well-prepared students-who are also predominately black, Hispanic, or poor-sittting in the same classrooms as the misplaced students and equally deserving of a good education. Well-prepared students need a real algebra class, not a fake one teaching elementary school mathematics".

It falls to the teachers to make up for the skill deficiencies of the misplaced students. The system put the burden on the algebra teacher to find a way to fix the problem of unprepared students. Recall from above: In 2007 31% of students were performing in the lowest 10th percentile. The average of these students were performing at about a second grade level... and it is up to the algebra teachers to fix the problem.
Many of the advocates for 'algebra-for-all'
"do not believe that students must learn basic mathematics in order to successfully tackle higher-level mathematics. They will argue that keeping remedial math students out of algebra in eighth grade denies these students the opportunities that good math students take for granted".
What is commonly overlooked is that the burden of such an idealistic view falls on the classroom teacher.

Another irony: The mathematics required on the California High School Exit exam is far below the level of the test proposed for all eighth graders in California.

The Recommendations of the Brown Center Report:
  1. Get the goal right.
  2. Teach and assess prerequisite skills.
  3. Early intervention.
  4. Collect data, conduct research.
When students are misplaced, they get lost in the curriculum and pay the price. Their classmates, who are ready for advanced math, also pay a price. "The students who already know arithmetic and are ready for algebra are the losers".

We, as a country, ranking 24th of 29 developed nations in mathematics, also pay the price of such education policy.

1 comment:

Jennifer the Tutor said...

Wow, just, wow.

I know that I have noticed that if kids aren't ready, and "fail" Alg in 8th grade (meaning that they don't pass the test OR don't get a C or above) that they feel defeated and give up trying in math.

This strikes me as the exact opposite attitude that we want to encourage.

The whole "Algebra by 8th grade" only works if the children are prepared! And I've noticed that many of the kids I help are nowhere near prepared.

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