By Dana Hull | sAN jOSE Mercury News
10 July 08 - California education officials set a high bar Wednesday: All eighth-grade students will be tested in algebra.
While the 8-1 vote from the state Board of Education was immediately applauded by several business groups, some educators warned it set unrealistic expectations since half the state's students are still struggling to master basic math skills.
The decision means that an intense ramp-up period is about to begin, as the state scrambles to hire and train more algebra teachers, align curriculum and get young students ready for more rigorous course work. The program could launch in as little as three years.
The move makes California the first state in the nation to require algebra at such an early level, signaling the state's determination to set high standards for its 6.3 million K-12 public school students.
"Algebra is the key that unlocks the world of science, innovation, engineering and technology," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. "This is California's future."
By adopting an Algebra I test as the sole federal math assessment for eighth-graders, state education officials expect that all eighth-graders will ultimately take algebra classes. If they fail the test, students can still advance to the next grade.
The latest round of math wars arose earlier this year when the federal Department of Education found California out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind law when it came to testing students. Some eighth-grade
students were tested in algebra, while others were tested in a lower-level general math.
The federal government told California to enroll all students in Algebra 1 within three years, or develop an alternate test that would include some Algebra 1 concepts.
State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell and his staff chose to develop a new eighth-grade math test that included some algebra. But many business leaders, education advocates and the governor objected, calling it "algebra lite." The state education board rejected O'Connell's plan.
"Algebra I is now the sole test of record for eighth-grade math," said state Board of Education President Ted Mitchell. "There is one set of standards, no matter what a student's ZIP code, race, ethnicity or income level. We're committed to creating a system in which they master skills for the 21st century."
Some critics say that pushing students into math courses they are not ready for could exacerbate California's dropout rate. And many question the time frame under which the new rules are being put into place.
"You need to lay the groundwork if you're going to make this kind of policy shift," said Santa Clara County schools chief Chuck Weis. "We need to invest in the teaching of mathematics at the lower grade levels."
Traditionally, high school students have taken Algebra I in the ninth grade. But in recent years, there has been a growing effort to shift Algebra I to the eighth grade. About 52 percent of all California eighth-graders now take Algebra I courses, up from only 16 percent at the beginning of the decade, according to EdVoice, a statewide education advocacy group.
But while more students are taking algebra earlier, not all of them are passing it.
"There's a big void at the middle-school level," said Pioneer High School math teacher Stephen McMahon. "We have a lot of students who take Algebra I in the eighth grade, and then they repeat it in ninth grade. A lot of students aren't ready for that level of math."