California has had its share of educational crises—such as whole language and fuzzy math. Despite recent improvements, the state is still in the grips of an algebra crisis.
The problem became apparent twenty years ago when the report A Nation at Risk warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the public schools. The report claimed that too few students were taking the more rigorous courses in high school. Twenty years later, enrollment in college-prep courses is way up. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that student learning is about the same as it was back then.
Recent reports have stressed the importance of algebra in middle school; students who succeed in algebra usually do better in the rest of school and in their careers than those who do not. Well-intentioned school administrators often hope that early enrollment in algebra will reduce the achievement gap attributed to race or family income. Hence enrollments in middle-school courses called "Algebra" have increased. But judging from results on objective statewide tests, many middle-school students are not learning the subject, even those with passing grades.
The strongest predictor of failure to learn algebra is not race or income; it is a lack of adequate academic preparation. The problem begins before students get to their first algebra class. Many school districts have watered down the content of pre-algebra courses, removing important but difficult material. The districts want more students to pass math classes, and they want to guarantee high pass rates by making the classes easy. But classes without content set students up for later failure in algebra.
The depth of the problem varies. In some schools, the percentage of eighth-grade algebra students is moderately correlated to scores on the seventh-grade California Standards Test. In those schools, algebra readiness is still being used as part of the placement decision.
In other schools, placement decisions appear unrelated to academic preparation. In the worst cases, all or nearly all students are placed in algebra by eighth grade, regardless of readiness.
No district in California is more guilty of misguided placement strategies than the San Diego City Schools. The results are disastrous. Failing to learn algebra in eighth grade results in large numbers of students repeating algebra in ninth grade, even though success is not ensured the second time around.
Admirably, California embraces learning algebra by the end of eighth grade as a long-term goal. But strengthening academics from kindergarten on is necessary before this goal can fully be met. Algebra placement rates ought to depend on student readiness. Seventh-grade student scores on the California Standards Test should guide placement in eighth-grade courses.
Another state policy adds to the problem. As of now middle schools receive more credit on California's accountability index for eighth graders who take the algebra test than for those who take the general math test, encouraging schools to place too many students in eighth-grade algebra. The state should discourage overplacement by taking away some credit on the accountability index for algebra exam failures.
California's algebra crisis is serious but not terminal. Schools need to concentrate on improving students' readiness for algebra courses. Algebra for all is good, but without changes we could end up with algebra for none.