Tuesday, February 12, 2013

California Abandoning Algebra for Eighth Graders

Image from Flickr, by ajaxofsalamis

California, which had some of the toughest academic standards in the nation, had to dumb down its curriculum and its expectations for students when it approved the Common Core Standards (CCS). One example is Algebra I, which used to be required for all eighth graders. Now, like other states that have adopted the CCS, California will allow students to take either Algebra I or an alternate course that includes some algebra, while the as yet unwritten new CCS exams will focus on content from this alternate course.

Many teachers and student advocates argue that this is appropriate since not all eighth graders are ready for algebra. When students are placed in courses for which they lack the requisite skills they are far more likely to struggle or fail, thus contributing to low self-efficacy and disillusionment with school—both reasons why some students later drop out of school. Furthermore, classrooms with large numbers of students who are not academically ready for a course can contribute to discipline problems and a poor academic environment in which a critical mass of students starts to believe there is no hope of passing, so why bother.  This can bring down the expectations, self-efficacy and motivation of the students in the middle (i.e., those who could pass with a little extra support), thus undermining their chances of success.

From the perspective of middle schools and school districts, delaying Algebra I allows them to improve their test scores (fewer students failing high stakes algebra tests because fewer would be taking them) and their graduation rates (fewer kids failing classes, in general). But this completely ignores the underlying reasons why so many eighth graders aren’t ready for Algebra I and merely passes the problem on to the high schools, where the kids may still lack the academic skills to succeed in the class. Studies indicate that 80% of students who retake algebra continue to fail the class (according to Inside Bay Area).

There are, no doubt, several factors contributing to this problem, but one is likely the social promotion that goes on in the lower grades, with students being passed from one grade level to the next, regardless of whether they have mastered their courses. One argument made in support of social promotion in the earlier grade levels is that holding students back is bad for their self-esteem and therefore harms their long-term success. However, if they are allowed to fail and move on, they continue to have low self-efficacy (i.e., “I cannot get good grades in school”) while picking up the mixed message that it doesn’t really matter (i.e., “I get to move on with my friends to the next level, regardless of whether I do homework, pass exams or classes”).

More significantly, success in math, like in reading, tends to correlate with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and prior academic success in school. There are certainly some very bright children who are “math-challenged.” Einstein was said to be one. For these students, delaying when they take algebra may help them develop the academic maturity and discipline necessary to pass the course. But for those who are failing Algebra I, along with English and other classes, the problem is much deeper and more intractable. They may have numerous other problems (e.g., poor attendance, bad study habits, learning disabilities, low literacy, a history of failure and concomitant low self-efficacy) that will follow them throughout their academic career, regardless of when they take algebra and that have their roots in the students’ socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g., low income students often lack health insurance and, consequently, have higher rates of absenteeism).

Deferring the problem to high school has ramifications beyond students’ progress in future math classes. Basic algebra is necessary for high school chemistry and biology, courses students are likely to take in the ninth and tenth grades (and fail if they lack the essential math skills). Of course, even students who do take algebra, but fail it, may also have trouble in science, but at least there is a chance that they were exposed to enough algebra to succeed in science. Not taking algebra at all significantly decreases this possibility, as does ignoring the root causes of mass algebra failure.

Another concern is that the creation of two math pathways will allow schools to fall into past bad habits of tracking students based on race or socioeconomic backgrounds. Indeed, a recent report (see Inside Bay Area) showed that some schools were placing black and Latino students in lower level math courses even when they had the skills and prerequisites for advanced math classes. This could also lead to tracking in science classes and reduction of black, Latino and low income students taking college preparatory and ultimately Advanced Placement science and math classes.

Critics of the new Algebra I requirement argue that success in Algebra I is good predictor of future college graduation, while avoiding algebra in middle school may pull students off the college-bound track. When the 8th grade requirement was implemented, black and Latino enrollment in the class skyrocketed—from 24% to 60% for African-Americans, and tripling for Latinos to 63%—(again, see Inside Bay Area). Even though pass rates for these groups are as low at 60%, there are still more black and Latino students passing the class than in the past (because more are taking the class).

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