Foundations urge adopting A-GPlacements into Algebra at issue
Two foundations in Silicon Valley are encouraging school districts to adopt college preparatory courses, known as A to G, as their default high school curriculum, with all students required to take the classes unless their parents request that they not.
In order to ensure that students stay on track for admission to a four-year college, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (the sponsor of this blog) are also urging school districts to create consistent criteria for placing students in Pre-Algebra in seventh grade and Algebra I in eighth grade.
The recommendations are among those in the policy brief “Time to Act: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap.” They stemmed from forums on the achievement gap that the foundations sponsored earlier this year.
Fewer than one in five school districts statewide reportedly offer all of their students the A-G curriculum, a series of 15 courses (18 recommended) in seven subject areas, including English, math, history, lab science, foreign language, and the visual and performing arts that students must pass with at least a C- for admission to a California State University or University of California campus. The Legislature has twice rejected legislation to make A-G mandatory.
San Jose Unified was the first district to adopt A-G as the default curriculum, for the Class of 2002, and San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified have followed suit within the past year. (Completion of A-G will first apply to the Class of 2015 in Oakland). This week, the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the largest high school district in Northern California, will consider the idea as well.
In San Jose Unified, about 40 percent of the Class of 2008 satisfied A-G with no D’s and the prerequisite courses. It was about 7 percentage points higher than the state average. The graduation rate has increased since the institution of A-G, and the percentage of students needing catch-up courses once they get to a CSU school is significantly lower than the state average.
The foundations are urging the adoption of A-G, knowing that many high school graduates will not end up going to a four-year college, says Manny Barbara, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s vice president for advocacy. But, he says, “students should make a conscious decision on whether to go to college; it shouldn’t result from a lack of knowledge of the requirements” or a denial of opportunity due to a shortage of A-G classes, a faulty assignment of courses, or the lack of counseling and encouragement.
Racial disparities in college readiness are significant. In 2007-08, fewer than 25 percent of Silicon Valley’s Latino students achieved the A-G course requirements, compared with more than 70 percent of Asian students and more than 50 percent of whites.
No ‘falling between the cracks’
“Adoption of A-G would help prevent students from falling between the cracks,” Barbara says. Entering freshmen would assume they’re going to college. By junior year, they and their parents could choose otherwise. And for those students who opt out, there should be programs, such as career academies in the building trades or green technologies, that offer both career and college alternatives, Barbara says.
Algebra I is the gateway course for college admission. And yet determining which students get to take Algebra I in eighth grade and which are assigned to repeat it in ninth has been arbitrary among and even within districts. Statewide, a record 57 percent of students took algebra in eighth grade last year, and 46 percent of them – also a record – were proficient.
And yet the percentage of students in neighboring districts with similar demographics in Silicon Valley and elsewhere has radically varied, as has the percentage of students who test proficient. (Two years ago, a third of students in one San Jose district took Algebra I, compared with 80 percent in a nearby district with a high percentage of low-income Hispanic children; yet both districts feed into the East Side Union High School District.)
A study of San Mateo school districts by the Noyce Foundation found that inexplicable numbers of students, many of them Hispanic, with passing grades and proficiency on the state’s standardized achievement test, were required to repeat Algebra I in ninth grade, often to their detriment; a second time through rarely raises achievement and often turns students off to math.
That’s why the foundations recommend the adoption of consistent placement standards among districts, without spelling out what those should be. Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which provided Pre-Algebra and Algebra readiness summer school for 900 students this past summer, has asked participating districts to commit to create common criteria.
Subtle biases – an inability to relate to kids of color or the belief that many of them would never be college material – also could be at work. That’s the assumption behind the foundations’ recommendation that teachers be given “culturally relevant and responsive instruction.”
But simply mandating a rigorous course load, professional development, and placement criteria alone won’t be sufficient to substantially bump up the numbers – not without effective teachers in all classrooms.
Equity comes into play. Low-income schools continue to bear a disproportionate share of intern and inexperienced teachers, particularly in math and science. And these schools have had a higher churn of teachers because their newer teachers have been the first to get laid off. Los Angeles Unified is currently being sued over this issue; SB 691, which would have prevented disproportionate layoffs in low-performing schools, was defeated last month.
The foundations urge that the state and districts enact policies to attract and retain the most qualified and effective teachers in high-need schools, although no specific policy is recommended.