CA drops algebra requirement for all eighth graders


Photo: Caleb Dennis

California eighth graders will soon be able to take a preparatory algebra course instead of Algebra 1.

Last month, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to drop a 15-year policy that required all eighth-graders to take Algebra 1. By the 2014-2015 school year, eighth graders will be able to take either Algebra 1 or another, easier course that includes preparatory algebra.

The move puts California in line with the Common Core standards adopted by most other states. Most states do not require algebra until high school.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an attempt to unify the diverse education curriculum in different states. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards.

California state standardized tests will be adjusted to accommodate the alternate preparatory algebra course.

Karen Choi, math department chair and math teacher at Gladstone High School in Covina, said the decision is not new. In 1997, California moved the Algebra 1 requirement from high school to junior high in an effort to expand educational offerings.

“There’s a joke among teachers that every 10 years, the pendulum swings,” Choi said.

The move is controversial because success in Algebra 1 is the single best predictor of college graduation, according to the Mercury News. Although pushing the requirement back may help struggling students, it could also be a step back.

Adrian Greer, director of the Homework House teen program, said he sees that algebra is extremely challenging for many of the eighth graders the program serves.

“Sometimes I’ll sit down and try to help a student with a math problem, and I don’t even know where to start,” Greer said. “If you don’t know your time tables, how do I even begin to explain irrational equations? How do I even begin to work with some of this algebra stuff?”

Greer said that students will often get pushed on to the next grade even if they have not mastered essential concepts. For those students, slowing down could be helpful, but for others, it could be detrimental.

“If it’s not required, they won’t challenge themselves, when what they really need is to be challenged,” Greer said. “I just hope and trust that the educational system has good monitors in place to kind of gauge what tracks students should be on.”

Taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade also places students on track to study calculus by their senior year of high school, as expected by top universities. Students who do not take Algebra 1 in eighth grade may have to study three years of math in two years to make it to calculus.

“Giving more leniency early on might end up putting more pressure on [students] later on in high school,” senior biblical studies major Noelle Reynolds said.

Reynolds is currently beginning a single-subject credentials program to become a teacher.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to really know what the outcome will be until it unfolds and we see how eighth graders who don’t take Algebra 1 are feeling when they get to high school,” Reynolds said.

Choi cited studies that say giving students more time to study algebra will not make a noticeable difference in passing rate.

She said that in her high school algebra classes, about 20 percent of the students are academically struggling with the algebra concepts.

All California high school students still taking Algebra 1 are already one year behind. Choi said they either 1) failed Algebra 1 in eighth grade and are re-taking the course, 2) passed pre-algebra in eighth grade and are moving up, albeit still behind or 3) failed pre-algebra in eighth grade but are now taking Algebra 1 since high schools don’t typically offer pre-algebra.

“I hope to see kids come more prepared,” Choi said of the changes in algebra requirements. “So kids coming into high school, they will be more ready with basic fundamental math skills and have more successful high school years and be ready for college.”