Starting this year, California students are supposed to pass algebra to earn a high school diploma, but many districts are seeking waivers. That includes districts that made algebra a graduation requirement years ago, yet never really enforced it.
More than one-third of the state’s high school districts already have applied for — and probably will receive — waivers. With the number still growing, the algebra condition attached to the 2004 diploma essentially becomes meaningless.
This comes less than a year after the state relented on a controversial requirement that this year’s seniors also pass an exit exam. That expectation was handed to the Class of 2006.
“It’s taking folks off the hook,” complained Russlynn Ali, head of the Education Trust-West, a non-profit Oakland group that advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students.
Districts claim new immigrants and special education students are the ones unable to pass algebra by the end of 12th grade. Special ed is a separate issue: Perhaps some students aren’t capable of completing normal requirements for a diploma and should go for a “certificate of completion” instead. But students can learn math long before they’re proficient in English. And some of those frequent flunkers aren’t immigrants or disabled. They’re slackers.
The requirement has forced schools to get more serious about teaching algebra. For one thing, they get better teachers.
At Milpitas High School, Lam Le — who has taught mathematics at the college level — teaches two classes of beginning algebra.
Le inherited several students who were failing but says she has only one F student now.
In her class, students actually start work before the bell rings. And they don’t start to pack up until it rings again. “Math takes discipline, and clear direction,” Le said.
Le flits from group to group like a hummingbird, challenging them to solve the problems. She conducts most of the class in English but also can help students by clarifying in Spanish or Vietnamese.
Alejandra Centeno lived in Nicaragua until she was 13. When she moved to Milpitas two years ago, she spoke no English. Not surprisingly, she failed algebra.
But her English is much better, and she’s getting an A in algebra. “I like how Mrs. Le teaches,” she said. “She takes time to explain it.”
Several students in her class said they support the requirement linking algebra to graduation, despite their struggles. “If you don’t know how to do math, you can’t get a good job,” said Jouit Soliano, who came from the Philippines last year.
California’s standards call for students to learn algebra in eighth grade. Yet the graduation exam was postponed because so many students were flunking the math portion of the test, which required only a 55 percent on a multiple-choice exam with four choices per question. Only the hardest questions required high school math skills.