The California Board of Education just voted 8-1 to scrap the eighth-grade general math test altogether and require all students to take the Algebra I STAR exam — likely, within the next three years.

It appears the decision may have been influenced by a last-minute appeal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to do so.

**Here’s the background:** The eighth-grade general math test was deemed out of compliance by the feds, because it only tested sixth and seventh grade standards. In response, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell proposed creating a new general math exam for eighth-graders who take pre-algebra, one which would include some algebra concepts. The state board rejected that proposal.

**A teacher’s perspective: **I just talked with Juliana Jones, a former Montera Middle School algebra teacher (yes, after seven years in Oakland, she’s leaving for Berkeley Unified) and last year’s Alameda County Teacher of the Year. Jones said she understands the push to expose kids to algebra earlier, but that it’s not as simple as eliminating a test, or requiring schools to enroll all children in algebra by eighth grade.

Because algebra is considered by many to be the “gatekeeper” for academic success, Jones said, some policy-makers believe that students should simply take the course earlier. They figure that even if some students fail, they can take the course again as ninth-graders, she said.

But Jones said there are unintended consequences to repeating the same material, year after year.

“They take it in eighth grade, they take it in ninth grade, they take it in tenth grade — Algebra I, Algebra I, Algebra I,” Jones said. “By the time they’re in 10th grade, they’re like `Screw this! I hate math.’ I like the idea of access to Algebra I for all students, but without a coherent plan to meet all students’ needs, it might be destined for failure.”

**A word from the state super: **Minutes ago, Jack O’Connell sent out a long and strongly worded e-mail expressing his disappointment at the board’s decision:

“I’m very distressed and more than disappointed that the State Board of Education has voted to implement Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal regarding eighth grade algebra that would severely impact students and schools without any discussion beforehand with educators in the field and with completely inadequate public notice.

“The Governor announced his position and gave direction to the members of the State Board late last night – less than 24 hours before a publicly noticed State Board meeting. The Board has been publicly considering a solution for alignment of an eighth grade mathematics test for more than three months. During that time, the Governor had ample time to communicate an opinion that we would have been able to notice, consider, discuss, and debate in open forum. Instead, he chose to remain silent until the 11th hour.

“It is quite distressing that the Governor would forward a proposal that would have significant impact on thousands and thousands of children with literally less than 24 hours notice so as to guarantee those affected most – teachers, students, and parents – would have virtually no opportunity to engage in the discussion.

“In addition, I have serious concerns with this proposal on its merits. I strongly disagree with the Governor’s proposal to require all eighth graders to take algebra within three years without also offering any of the support for our school districts and schools to successfully make this major change.

“I agree with the Governor in that we can be proud that our accountability model and algebra graduation requirement have pushed for more rigor in our system, and have indeed led to significantly greater numbers of students taking algebra.

I truly believe that with enough support, all students can succeed in algebra in the eighth grade.

“If the Governor had consulted an eighth grade teacher, principal, or district superintendent or reviewed data about eighth grade achievement in math, what he would have heard and seen is that while the number of students taking algebra has greatly increased, proficiency has not. Our system simply has more work to do to put in place the necessary tools to ensure every child is ready to participate and succeed in algebra.

“What I found interesting is what the Governor hasn’t said. He has offered no specifics about additional support or resources to our public school system to prepare all eighth grade students to succeed in algebra. Let’s not forget, while the State Board met today, local school boards across the state are cutting programs because of our state budget crisis.

“Today, educators throughout the state have placed almost half of our eighth grade students in General Mathematics despite the fact that doing so has negative implications for their schools in our accountability system. But, they do it because it is a more educationally appropriate choice for certain students. And for that roughly half of the eighth grade population deemed by teachers, principals and parents not to be ready for algebra, a disturbingly low 23 percent are proficient or advanced on what amounts to seventh grade standards.

“When we disaggregate this data, we also find disturbing achievement gaps with African Americans at 13 percent proficiency and Hispanics at 16 percent.

In fact, if you look at all eighth grade students taking both Algebra 1 and General Mathematics, less than 12 percent of California’s Hispanic students in the eighth grade are proficient and less than 10 percent of African Americans are proficient.

“These numbers tell us that quality instruction, resources, and time matters greatly in preparing students to succeed. Just putting all students in algebra, regardless what the data tell us, is not a responsible course of action. Clearly, different strategies need to be put in place if we expect all students to succeed in eighth grade algebra. I am very disappointed that the Governor is advocating a proposal that does not address those issues or offer any additional assistance.

“One leading urban superintendent I respect, for example, told me he thought he could come close to meeting the expectation to prepare all eighth grade students to take Algebra 1, but only if he were allowed to waive history or science in the lower grades so as to give him more time to teach math. Are we willing to offer that flexibility? Is that a good idea? Should we discuss it? These are the kinds of tough choices our districts would have to make if we impose this requirement with as little thought or discussion as is proposed today.

“If we are going to put this new expectation on our schools, we need to put appropriate resources into place. Otherwise, let’s be honest: we’re just setting our schools up for failure. We need to ensure subject matter expertise at every grade level. We need consistent, high-quality standards-aligned professional development, and our schools need a minimum available amount of instructional minutes for mathematics. We cannot expect our students to succeed when we adults have not done our part.

“I understand that some are suggesting we don’t need to worry about these consequences – that the likelihood is we’ll have a new administration in Washington before any of them come to pass. But that is a cynical and insincere way of making public policy, and is tremendously risky for our students and schools.

“In pushing for this major change in education policy, the Governor has committed to provide additional resources to schools. He has made such commitments to our schools before and then in response to state budget crisis, he broke his word. By forcing this mandate on schools without first guaranteeing resources or a plan for implementation, the Governor has gambled the education of thousands of school children; I pray the kids win.”

If you’ve gotten this far, what’s your assessment of the board’s decision?

image from .raindrops.’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

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