College-prep for all — with easier math

Math teachers at my daughter’s old high school oppose a plan to require all students to pass college-prep classes required for admission to California universities, known as A-G courses. They say some Palo Alto High students — disproportionately black, Hispanic and disabled — can’t pass the school’s demanding Algebra II class, which requires more than the UC/CSU standard.  Water it down to the minimal level and students will end up in remedial math in college, the teachers warn.

The department chair, Radu Toma, wrote the letter (posted on, which is signed by his colleagues. He taught my daughter Geometry in ninth grade and AP Calculus in 12th grade. Her Algebra II and pre-calc teachers signed too.

The math teachers are snobs who only want to teach advanced classes, argues LaToya Baldwin Clark in the Palo Alto Weekly. Require A-G for graduation, she writes, and create an easier Algebra II class for average students who don’t have parents who can tutor them — or pay for tutoring.

By the department’s own admission, even the regular lane Algebra II class greatly exceeds the UC/CSU. In the view of Toma and his colleagues, “diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district’s reputation.” The department refuses to teach an Algebra II that satisfies UC/CSU requirements that students can actually pass. And where does the Paly math department think those students who fail to complete Algebra II should go, rather than to college? They can “go on to community colleges or jobs for which district prepares them better than most districts.”

The reputation of a high school is enhanced when all students go to four-year colleges.

Last year, 85 percent of all high school graduates in the district met the UC/CSU requirements. But only 5 percent of special-ed students, 15 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanic graduates were eligible for state universities.

Many of the black and Hispanic students have transferred from neighboring East Palo Alto, a low-income and working-class town, under a desegregation agreement. Many of the Palo Alto students are the children of very well-educated parents who work in high-tech or at Stanford. There’s no question that Palo Alto’s two high schools are designed to prepare students for very competitive colleges and universities.

The local community college, Foothill, is one of the best in the state. But graduation rates are low for community college students. Starting at a four-year university — San Jose State is the likely choice — would raise the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

But we’re still talking about long odds. Most remedial math students never earn a degree.

If a basic Algebra II is created, it should be aligned with college placement tests, so students know if they’re on track to take college-level or remedial classes. If the high school maintains high standards in its regular-lane Algebra II, then teachers need a strategy to help math-challenged students pass.

There’s another option: Work with Foothill to create a career-prep track. Community colleges offer programs that qualify students for a “middle-skill” job in two years or less. Some require advanced algebra, but others do not. But this would be seen as setting low expectations for other people’s kids. It wouldn’t fly.


Algebra II mandate gains momentum

Algebra II is becoming a required course in a growing number of high schools, reports the  Washington Post.

Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates.

In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.

In Arkansas, which now requires Algebra II for most graduates, only 13 percent of students passed a rigorous end-of-course exam.

“All those numbers and letters, it’s like another language, like hieroglyphics,” said Tiffany Woodle, a Conway High School student and an aspiring beauty salon owner. “It obviously says something. I’m just not sure what, sometimes.”

As part of its push for higher standards to prepare students for college, Achieve has promoted Algebra II. The skills learned in the course are needed for college and in the workplace, the group claims.

But Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs, says that just because taking the class correlates with success doesn’t mean that it causes success.

“The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said. “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life. The state governments need to be careful with this.”

The danger, he said, is leaving some kids behind by “getting locked into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.”

Does Tiffany really need advanced algebra to run a beauty salon?

Economist Russ Roberts, who’s married to a math teacher, warns of a one-fad-fits-all mandate on Cafe Hayek.

II Doesn’t Always = II

Algebra II Doesn’t Always = II, reports the Washington Post.  To prepare students for college and for technical careers, 20 states and the District of Columbia now require students to take advanced algebra. But the course content and standards vary significantly from school to school:  One school’s Algebra II is another school’s Remedial Math.

“I want to make sure that if a student takes a course, it’s really a significant course, not a watered-down version,” said Ronald A. Peiffer, Maryland deputy state superintendent for academic policy.

Peiffer said that when the state made Algebra I a graduation requirement in the early 1990s, many schools began offering two versions, the traditional course and one some teachers called “baby algebra.” The state tried to rectify the disparity later, mandating an end-of-course graduation test for Algebra I that students are expected to pass to receive a diploma.

Ninety percent of Virginia’s Algebra II students passed the end-of-course Standards of Learning exam. Students need the course for an advanced diploma, but skip it if they’re content with a regular diploma.

Achieve worked with a group of states to design a national end-of-course Algebra II exam with both open-ended and multiple-choice questions.  It was tried last year in a dozen states. “In some states, only one in five students passed,” the Post reports.