“When students take Algebra I matters, but many students do not have early access.”
So says a recently released report by the U.S. Dept. of Education. It also states:
The Department is encouraging both access to and enrollment in STEM courses. Both aspects are important because, as we will see through the story, even where access to Algebra I classes are available students do not necessarily enroll in them.
The story is mostly grounded in civil rights issues and equity for all, but ignores a key factor in all this: Proponents of the Common Core math standards take a “Common Core wanted it this way” attitude, citing that the standards call for algebra in high school, but not in eighth grade. They take this stance despite Common Core allowing for such option as addresed in the Appendix to the math standards:
A “compacted” version of the Traditional pathway where no content is omitted, in which students would complete the content of 7th grade, 8th grade, and the High School Algebra I course in grades 7 (Compacted 7th Grade) and 8 (8th Grade Algebra I), which will enable them to reach Calculus or other college level courses by their senior year. While the K-7 CCSS effectively prepare students for algebra in 8th grade, some standards from 8th grade have been placed in the Accelerated 7th Grade course to make the 8th Grade Algebra I course more manageable;
But such words do not matter. Algebra continues to be the forbidden fruit of education, reserved for those whose parents can afford to have their kids learn it outside of school–or have enough clout to get their kids in to 8th grade algebra programs when they are offered. As I wrote about here, the San Francisco school district did away with algebra in 8th grade. Jo Boaler and Alan Schoenfeld wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, lauding this decision, and stating:
They (i.e., San Francisco USD) found a unique balance that is now seen as a national model. They decided to challenge students earlier with depth and rigor in middle school. All students in the district take Common Core Math 6, 7 and 8, a robust foundation that allows them to be more successful in advanced math courses in high school.
Again, an example of an inflexible interpretation of the Common Core Math Standards. And as I discussed in the referenced post, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District limits access to algebra in 8th grade by making it available to the “truly gifted”–a term that went undefined and which I heard uttered by an official of that school district. They determine the “truly gifted” by requiring students to receive high scores on two tests given in the 7th grade. One test has been around for a while–a multiple choice test developed by two universities that did a good job in determining the students who were ready for algebra.
With the advent of Common Core, the District decided to institute a second test, developed by an outfit called the Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI). The test consisted of questions that in my opinion, were appropriate for formative assessments but not for summative. It did the job, however, and many students were suddenly deemed unqualified (i.e., not “truly gifted”) to take algebra 1 in eighth grade. (Assuming that one has to be “gifted” in order to take algebra in eighth grade; I do not believe giftedness is a necessity for it.) In the 2015-16 school year only 17% of students took algebra in 8th grade: 88 out of 517, down from about 300 students in 2013.
The report from the Dept of Education is timely. It is correct that civil rights issues are important, I think the problem goes beyond civil rights. Namely, one no longer needs to be in a minority to be stuck with inferior programs and goals.