Algebra Policy in California: Great Expectations and Serious Challenges
Although California's math standards and accountability policies encourage early student participation in algebra, the state's education leaders and policymakers are greatly divided on exactly when students should be required to take Algebra I and how to ensure that they all have a reasonable chance for success.
The State Board of Education's July 2008 decision, that the Algebra I test be the "sole test of record" in 8th grade mathematics for federal accountability purposes, raised the visibility of this debate. A subsequent legal challenge also raised broader questions about California's system for math education, questions that this report explores.
What is known about the effects so far of the state's standards-based policies around math in general and algebra in particular? Could California strengthen its approach to mathematics standards, curricula, and assessment in grades 5-8, including Algebra I? Do California's teachers in grades 5-8 have the math content knowledge and pedagogical skills they need to teach California's students most effectively, or what capacity-building is needed?
This report provides a thorough and balanced look at the far-reaching issues and impacts—as well as opportunities—that surround California's goal for all students to take and succeed in Algebra I by 8th grade.
- California has used its academic content standards and accountability policies in various ways to push for earlier student participation and success in algebra.
- The state has seen large increases in 8th grade algebra participation and proficiency.
- Test scores, algebra course "repeater" data (see EdSource's table), and results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) all provide evidence that math performance falls well short of the state's expectations for many students.
- Critics are raising hard questions about the state's algebra policies and pushing for clarification about what to teach and when.
- The debate sheds light on shortcomings in California's teacher credentialing policies and lack of support for professional development.
Specifics in this report:
- A brief history of the State Board of Education's algebra decision
- How California's academic content standards are organized in grades K-7 versus grades 8-12
- Numbers of students taking Algebra I in 2003 compared with 2008 (see EdSource's charts)
- Performance of 8th graders taking Algebra I in 2003 compared with 2008, disaggregated by student ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English learners and students with disabilities (see EdSource's charts)
- Data showing a decline in math achievement beginning in grade 5
- A review of ongoing policy discussion about the credentialing and preparation of California's elementary and middle grades math teachers
- Regional and statewide efforts to provide professional development in math
EdSource thanks the Noyce Foundation for underwriting research, development, and dissemination of this publication