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.


Test-based accountability: Time to wobble?

Minority and special-ed students made significant gains once states and then No Child Left Behind began holding schools accountable for their performance, argues Bush adviser Sandy Kress in a New York Daily News op-ed. Kress accuses President Obama of going “wobbly” on  accountability.

Under the framework being proposed for the reform of the law, the administration would require that, unless a school is among the very worst in the nation, it would no longer be required to improve even if it continues to fail its black, Hispanic and other disadvantaged kids. Further, in the case of schools that do not improve, special tutoring and public school choice would no longer be required.

In Fact-checking Sandy Kress, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli argues that nearly all the improvement occurred by 2004, less than two years after NCLB was implemented.

For instance, according to the NAEP, the average reading score for Black 9-year olds rose from 186 in 1999 to 204 in 2008–an increase of 18 points. (At 10 points per grade level that comes close enough to the “two grade levels” of progress Kress claims.) Hispanic 9-year olds increased their average reading scores from 213 in 1999 to 234 in 2008–an increase of 21 points. Fourth-grade students with disabilities increased their reading scores from 167 in 2000 to 189 in 2009.

. . . For Black 9-year-olds, 78 percent of the improvement took place in the five years between 1999 and 2004, compared to 22 percent in the four years between 2004 and 2008. For Hispanic students, 81 percent of the gains occurred between 1999 and 2004, compared to 19 percent between 2004 and 2008. For fourth-grade students with disabilities, 91 percent of the gains occurred in just two years: between 2000 and 2002.

While there’s “plausible evidence to credit accountability-based reforms,” writes Petrilli, NCLB can’t claim much credit since it didn’t start till fall of 2002.

Petrilli thinks the states’ accountability measures boosted student achievement in the late 1990s to early 2000s. NCLB jumped on a moving bandwagon. “To me, the evidence shows that NCLB and test-based accountability had their day in the sun, and made a big difference, but now it’s time to try something else if we want to see progress continue.”

Kress responds in an e-mail with more NAEP data:

Let’s deal with the easy part – gains on the Long Term Trend for students with disabilities (SWDs) and English Language Learners (ELLs) from 2004-2008. This is squarely within NCLB time.

9 year old SWDs improved a half grade level (5 points) in reading.

9 year olds ELLs improved almost a grade level (8 points) in reading.

9 year old SWDs improved over a half grade level (6 points) in math.

9 year old ELLs improved 3 points in math.

13 year old SWDs improved 3 points in math.

13 year old ELLs improved over a half grade level (7 points) in math.

13 year old SWDs improved almost a full grade level (9 points) in reading.

13 year old ELLs improved 2 points in reading.

Now, since Mike is enamored of the Main NDE, let’s look at that data:

For 4th grade math, it is true that SWDs had an incredible jump from 2000 to 2003, from 200 to 216. I don’t want to argue this was due to NCLB, but, since there’s almost a full academic year since the summer of 2002 in this data, I would suggest that this bridge period probably shouldn’t be used for a pre and post analysis.

In any event, 4th grade SWDs have gone up 7 points since 2003, which is a gain of over a half a grade level. 4th grade ELLs had that nice pop in 2003, too, but also have grown an additional half grade level since.

It is incontestable that something unusual happened in NAEP testing between the late 1990s and 2002 and 2003, first a drop and then an unusual increase. I can’t explain it, and I suspect Mike can’t either. I invite thoughts from any and all of you on that topic.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that 4th grade ELLs have improved over a half grade level in reading since 2002, and SWDs have improved almost a half grade level as well.

The same pattern of a pop in 2003 occurs in 8th grade math with further gains for SWDs and ELLs after 2003. Reading at the 8th grade level is stagnant.

“Consequential accountability, which began in many states in the mid-1990s and was extended and deepened by NCLB, works!” Kress writes. “Any weakening of its pillars threatens the progress we’ve made.”