I thought it would be interesting to look at the math achievement data that district leadership reviewed, in detail, before recommending our math placement policy. I should note that the data is from the California Standards Test (CST), which has now been discontinued in favor of the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC). You cannot compare SBAC results to CST results, because they are very different assessments. So, while we do have one base year of SBAC scores, I’m only using CSTs here because of the comparability issues. That’s why there are no scores past 2013 — the state stopped administering CSTs after 2013 and did not administer SBACs until 2015.
ENROLLMENT: The graph below shows the percentage of students in each grade who took each version of the California Standards Test. This graph documents the overall trend in the 2000s towards more students taking Algebra I in 8th grade, which in turn increased the number of students taking Algebra II in 10th grade.
PERFORMANCE: More students took these courses earlier in middle and high school than previously, but how did they perform? Perhaps not surprisingly, as more students took these courses, that were previously considered to be very advanced, performance gradually declined. The next graph shows the percentage of students in each grade who took each test and scored advanced or proficient. I find it troubling that achievement in Algebra I, as demonstrated by the CST anyway, clearly flattened out at under 50 percent scoring advanced or proficient in recent years. And Algebra II scores — remember, by 10th graders, who would most likely have to have been placed in Algebra I two years earlier to take Algebra II in 8th grade — show an even sharper decline.
The last graph is a different perspective on the size of the cohort of students scoring advanced or proficient on each state test. Instead of basing the percentage on the universe of students who took the test, as in the graph above, I calculated students in each grade scoring advanced or proficient on each test as a percentage of their entire class cohort — not just those who took the test. If you accept that these CST scores are a reasonable proxy for mastery of the subject (and there are arguments about that), you can see that indeed we had little to brag about in terms of math proficiency in secondary school. The Algebra II CST scores are particularly dismal — just 14 percent of all 10th graders (and 40 percent of those who took the course) scored advanced or proficient in Algebra II in 2013.
I have shared the underlying data for these charts in a Google Doc which you may view if you’re interested. That data and much more is also available here, from the California Department of Education.
What the data tells me is that we really did/do need to overhaul math instruction to improve achievement in Algebra and other advanced math topics. In my view, reasonable people can disagree on the district’s chosen course for math policy, but it’s not an unreasonable assumption that giving students time to develop a firmer foundation in math — particularly as the rigor of the Algebra courses most students will encounter under the Common Core has increased dramatically — is a good idea if we want to improve achievement and get more students to attain higher levels of mathematics.
Anyway, Algebra II is a basic gatekeeper to the future: you cannot go to a four-year college as an 18-year-old if you cannot pass it. And even good “vocational” careers requiring apprenticeships rather than college degrees (like being a union carpenter, for example) require this level of math mastery. I’ve been hearing a lot from the parents who are concerned their children need to move at a faster pace. I would like all of us to pause for just a moment and contemplate how many students’ futures have been curtailed because our system has not prepared many students very well for the math they need in the future.
That said, I am continuing to have a dialogue with parents and with district leaders about how we can continue to improve our Common Core implementation: I’m particularly interested in additional class size reduction in middle school math, because I believe teachers need that space to fully realize the paradigm shift that Common Core represents. I’m also really inspired by some great conversations that are starting around redesigning high school, which is another pillar of the district’s Vision 2025. By deepening and extending our relationship with City College, for example, we can expand the acceleration options available to students, while allowing much more flexibility around where (and when) students take courses.