California creates new algebra standards for middle school students

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Last month, California moved forward in implementing new academic standards that could impact the way California middle schools, including those in Berkeley, approach algebra education.

In following the new standards called the Common Core, the California State Board of Education created two math-course pathways for public middle schools. Now school districts will be able to decide whether their eighth- graders are prepared enough before requiring them to take Algebra 1.

If districts do not require students to take Algebra 1 in the eighth grade, they will offer an alternative algebra preparatory course to prepare students to take the course in ninth grade.

Under the new standards, Algebra 1 will still be required for high school graduation, but students will now be steadily exposed to algebra during the sixth and seventh grades, said President of the State Board of Education Michael Kirst.

Berkeley is just starting to incorporate Common Core standards into its district, said  Karen Hemphill, school board director of the Berkeley Unified School District.

According to Hemphill, the district currently requires sixth-grade students to take a general math course, pre-algebra in seventh grade and allows students to take Algebra 1, Geometry or Honors Algebra in the eighth grade.

Leah Alcala, an eighth-grade-algebra teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, thinks the new standards will provide a richer understanding of math. The school has already started offering pre-algebra for its eighth-graders, she said.

“The content flows more logically from one to the next,” Alcala said.

But Hemphill is afraid that the new standards will make students less likely to complete all the math courses they need to enter universities. Eighth-grade Algebra 1 has been a foundational course needed for academic success among schools everywhere, she said.

“There were a number of studies showing that too many students weren’t ready for algebra,” Kirst said. “We are saying be careful about who you are putting in algebra. It is a refinement of both of these pathways.”

David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an educational policy research center partly based at UC Berkeley, said that these pathways allow for flexibility that will help students struggling to master algebra.

“When you require students to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, they fail,” Plank said. “Then they are required to take it again. There is a serious argument that this actually hinders (students) because they get demotivated and discouraged.”

The Berkeley Unified School Board wants a report of the progress of eighth-grade students who are not taking Algebra 1 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School by the end of the academic year to make sure that the new alternative pathway is not keeping students from completing their courses needed for college.

Alyssa Neumann covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]