Raising Expectations for Mathematics Instruction in California: Algebra and Beyond

As expectations for students to meet high academic standards have risen over the past two decades, so have the expectations for students to complete, and excel in, more rigorous mathematics courses. Once a course reserved only for the college-bound, algebra is now a graduation requirement for all California students as well as an early “gateway” into a college preparatory program. In recent years, pressure has mounted for students to clear this gateway earlier and earlier; while most districts now require algebra in ninth grade, some do so in grade 8 and some offer it as early as seventh grade for some of their students. Meanwhile, data in most districts reveal large discrepancies among student groups in both their enrollment in and their successful completion of Algebra I.

Given algebra’s pivotal role in a college preparatory program, such enrollment and performance gaps raise fundamental questions about equity in our schools. How do we ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed in the advanced mathematics courses they will need to matriculate and be successful in college? At what point in their school careers must they enroll in algebra in order to gain access to those advanced courses before graduation? What kinds of supports are needed to ensure that students who have access to those courses have the skills to succeed in them?

These are among the questions that state policy makers and educators have been debating since the July 2008 motion of the California Board of Education requiring all eighth grade students to take the state Algebra 1 end-of-course exam. Though the state Superior Court subsequently overturned the Board’s decision based on process, the questions surrounding this issue remain an important topic for districts across the state.

Ensuring success in algebra for all students involves several key areas of attention and action for districts. These include the creation of a strong K-12 mathematics curriculum, appropriate placement of students in mathematics courses, enhancement of current instructional capacity in mathematics, and provision of additional supports for struggling students. In today’s fiscal climate, finding funds to address these issues is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, but the recent infusion of one-time funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) may provide new opportunities.

This brief draws on dialogue and investigation among the district practitioners, researchers, and policymakers participating in the California Collaborative on District Reform. In this brief we discuss ways in which districts can approach these issues given the current fiscal and political context in California. We also provide recommendations for strategies the state can use to support districts in these efforts.