State Board poised to lower standards for middle school math

Doug McRaeAt its meeting next week, the California State Board of Education will consider eliminating the incentive for schools to offer a full Algebra 1 course to students ready to take Algebra by 8th grade. But removing this incentive would result in a de facto lowering of expectations for mathematics programs in middle schools, and lead to a significant reduction in the number of middle school students becoming proficient in Algebra. Do we really want to do this?
Perhaps it is best to view this issue from the perspective of a middle school mom who asked in an email several weeks ago: “With state board action adopting Common Core grade 8 math standards in January, will middle schools be able to offer Algebra?” She continued, “My son’s school will be offering the new 8th grade Common Core class next year but not Algebra. I’d like my son (who is a high performing math student) to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. The middle school principal, high school principal, and high school math teacher have all said this is a better pathway for college prep.”
My email reply was: “Middle schools will have the option to offer Algebra. The State Board’s action in January made the Common Core standards for grade 8 the state standards for California, but those standards are not mandatory, and schools may deviate if they wish. Whether the Common Core for grade 8 is a better pathway for college prep is a contentious and disputed issue. I and others view Algebra in middle school as a more ambitious and rigorous pathway for college math and science, more competitive with many European and Asian nations’ curricula.
“We see that California has proven over the past 15 years with our ‘Algebra by grade 8’ initiative that half or better of our middle school kids are capable of taking and becoming proficient in Algebra by grade 8. For this group of students, we view the State Board’s action in January as a step backwards. A better policy would be a true two-pathway policy: Algebra for those ready by grade 8 and Common Core grade 8 math for those not-yet-ready for Algebra.”
At the State Board meeting in January, there were PowerPoints and much discussion on the value of a true two-pathway policy for middle school math.  However, if one looked at the standards documents approved by the board, there was no language to support the offering of a full Algebra course in the middle school grades, only a hint via a graphic that Algebra in middle school would be acceptable. Based on that graphic, it was clear that the Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the State Board on implementing Common Core, had plans for statewide support for instructional elements such as curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and teacher professional development, for Algebra in middle schools. But the elephant in the room was whether (1) the assessment system, and then (2) the accountability system would support a true two-pathway policy.
Good intentions via instructional supports will be trumped in a heartbeat by one-pathway assessment and accountability systems. In the real world, what gets tested is what gets taught. And if accountability systems such as the API give equal credit for less rigorous and more rigorous pathways, then schools will gravitate to the less rigorous pathways to maximize their APIs. For policymakers to ignore these realities would be to operate with blinders.
Under the current accountability system, 8th grade students who don’t take Algebra in grade 8 are docked points, for purposes of API scores, on non-Algebra standardized tests. Next week, the State Board will consider the CDE staff recommendation to eliminate that distinction and remove a school district’s incentive to encourage students to take Algebra in 8th grade.
That step—treating Algebra and non-Algebra math the same for API purposes—foreshadows the State Superintendent’s position once Common Core is implemented, as early as two years from now. If in a few years the state, on its own, does decide to create a new Common Core-based end-of-year Algebra test, the precedent will have been clearly established to treat it and Common Core 8th grade math the same for accountability purposes. Meanwhile, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium plan upon which the Superintendent and his staff rely heavily, does not include designing or developing an end-of-the-year Algebra test. Rather, the recommended new statewide assessment system would involve only a Common Core grade 8 math test. All students would take that easier, pre-Algebra test, without distinguishing or crediting those currently taking Algebra. With this scenario, it does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that what is emerging from the policy cloud in Sacramento is a lowering of expectations (or standards) for middle school kids ready to take Algebra by grade 8.
State officials assert that the federal Department of Education will not accept a true two-pathway system for accountability purposes. But that is not true. There are potential assessment and accountability designs that would support a true two-pathway middle school math policy for California. These designs involve developing a valid and reliable Algebra test that is linked to the Smarter Balanced Common Core grade 8 test, and setting performance standards for both tests on the common scale of measurement that links the two tests. At least one other state has used this design and gained federal approval for their program for NCLB purposes. A benefit of using this assessment system design is that it would provide logical weights for how much credit to give each test for accountability system calculations.
Unfortunately, the recommendation before the Board next week does not follow the common-sense strategy just outlined. Instead, it foreshadows a less rigorous approach. Kids not yet ready for Algebra by grade 8 should benefit, since the Common Core grade 8 pathway will be superior for these kids than their current instruction and assessment pathway, but at the expense of lowered instruction and assessment goals for kids ready for Algebra.
The State Board should rise above the State Superintendent and CDE staff recommendations, and support a true two-pathway policy for middle school math. The Board also needs to follow a strategic plan to align future statewide assessment and accountability programs to both pathways to fully implement a good two-pathway policy.
Doug McRae is a retired educational measurement specialist living in Monterey. In his 40 years in the K-12 testing business, he has served as an educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests widely used across the US, as well as an adviser on the initial design and development of California’s STAR assessment system. He has a Ph.D. in Quantitative Psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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