Sunday, March 28, 2010




By John Fensterwald in The Educated Guess

March 24th, 2010 -- California’s pursuit of algebra for all is becoming algebra forever for too many students.

A new study sponsored by the Noyce Foundation that looked into the dark art of math placement found that unexplainably large numbers of eighth grade Algebra students are being assigned to repeat Algebra in high school, to their detriment. At least half of these students end up doing worse in the course the second time around. A high proportion of the repeaters are non-Asian minority students, the data indicate.

The Noyce Foundation is due to release its Pathways Study later this month. The lead researchers presented the findings at the second of three forums on “Closing the Achievement Gap in Silicon Valley,” co-sponsored by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

smf notes that the Educated Guess is a publication of, and Fensterwald is an employee of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation

The study was limited to nine school districts in the Bay Area, but there’s no reason to doubt the same pattern isn’t statewide. The implication is that subjective and restrictive math placement policies are inhibiting students from pursuing and qualifying for a four-year state university.

The filters also may be turning students off to technical and scientific careers by branding them as math failures early in high school. Steve Waterman, a retired Bay Area superintendent and lead researcher, went as far as to tell the Silicon Valley audience that the Valley wouldn’t have to import so many engineers if schools stopped disenfranchising students from higher math. It’s that serious a problem.

California is alone among states in promoting universal Algebra I for eighth graders. From 2003 to 2008, the number of eighth graders enrolled in Algebra increased 63 percent, to 247,000, and the number of students who passed the state Algebra I test increased 76 percent. The rate of proficiency actually rose from 39 percent to 42 percent.



Meanwhile, the debate rages whether many eighth graders are prepared for algebra. The California School Boards Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators have sued the State Board of Education over the universal Algebra policy. The issue remains in court.

Slightly more than half of students statewide and in the nine-district Noyce study took  Algebra I in eighth grade last year. Researchers found that 65 percent of the nearly 2,000 students studied were reassigned Algebra or Honors Algebra (some schools didn’t offer the latter) in ninth grade instead of Geometry. Even 35 percent of the students who got a B- or better grade were required to repeat the course. And most surprising – or shocking — 60 percent of students who scored proficient or advanced on the CST, the standardized algebra test, were forced to repeat in ninth grade.

Passing Algebra in eighth grade is a gateway to high school. As Waterman pointed out, getting through it puts a student on a path for Advanced Placement math as a senior and, as importantly, places the students in a network of serious students that can counter negative peer influences while encouraging one another to do well. The converse, unfortunately, appears true, too, when students  view themselves as math failures and repeat algebra, often using the same curriculum and same textbook. Half of the students who got at least a B- in eighth grade algebra did no better or worse the second time around.

Districts and schools differ in how they decide whether students get placed in Algebra I and subsequently in Geometry. Some go by grades, others by teachers’  and counselors’ recommendations and standardized test scores – or a combination of all of them.  Some high schools give their own placement exams. Decisions on ninth grade placement begin early in the spring of eighth grade, months before results on standardized tests are known, so that master schedules can be made. High school schedulers would have to be flexible to reassign students once the CST results are known in August.

Then there are unknowable factors – parental pressure, unconscious ethnic or racial bias,  and tensions between middle and high school teachers — that go into the black box of decision-making. There are correlations between race, ethnicity and parents’ education – but not, interestingly enough, gender — in which students are selected for Algebra in eighth grade, the study found. Asians, whites and children whose parents have college degrees were disproportionately chosen.

The study numbers were smaller – and perhaps less reliable – in examining those students with a B- or better in Algebra I a year later. More Asians were assigned Geometry than Hispanics or whites (too few African Americans were in the study sample to draw conclusions).

The researchers speculated that some middle school teachers were  too conservative in their recommendations, passing along only their best students for geometry; some have been castigated by high school teachers for recommending too many.

David Foster, director of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative for the Noyce Foundation, noted that English teachers don’t apply similar restrictive criteria to deny students from taking freshman English. High school math teachers, he said, have to change their belief systems.

“Math teachers seem to believe their role in life is to separate wheat from the chaff,” he told me, referring to the large numbers of Algebra repeaters.  “There is no other discipline where failing half kids every year is seen as anything but failure.”

(Fensterwald will pass on the url for the study as soon as it is released. In addition, EdSource, as a followup to its massive survey of middle schools, plans to look at much of the same data on algebra on larger scale. Its findings should be out this fall. And the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Silicon Valley Community Foundation plan to take a harder look at the issue of math placements in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in coming months. Meanwhile, I encourage middle and high school math teachers to share their thoughts.)

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