Algebra for All The Push for Higher Math

II Doesn't Always = II

Similarities in Advanced High School Math Courses Often Mask Differences in Standards and Requirements

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009; Page B01

From Northwest Washington to the suburbs of Fairfax and Prince George's counties, advanced algebra often appears the same from class to class: Students are expected to learn dozens of skills, including factoring trinomials, solving rational equations and graphing quadratic functions.

But behind the surface similarities, experts say, there can be wide variations in what students learn in a course seen as critical to developing a math-savvy workforce for the digital age.

Those variations reflect, in part, patchwork government policy: The District, like many states, is moving toward a mandate for all students to pass Algebra II before graduating. Maryland and Virginia are not.

On the other hand, although all three jurisdictions have raised expectations for what should be taught in the class, only Virginia requires Algebra II students to take a standardized test to show they have learned the material.

Historically, "academic standards have been all over the place," said Sandy Boyd, a vice president at Achieve in the District. The organization works with states to strengthen education standards and graduation requirements to prepare students for college or more than a dead-end job. If students can crack advanced algebra, experts say, their college chances and career prospects will be brighter and their future evenings free from rehashing the same concepts in community college.

Accordingly, 20 states and the District have made Algebra II, or an equivalent course, a must for a high school diploma, up from two states in 2005. Deborah A. Gist, the District's state superintendent of education, said the requirement, approved in 2007, was overdue.

"This is our attempt to make sure our students can stay competitive," she said.

Top students have long been expected to take advanced algebra. At Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a college preparatory magnet school near downtown Washington, two dozen students spent a wintry afternoon multiplying matrixes. The multi-step problem, which involved manipulating three rows and three columns of numbers, would have been a quick calculator job. But Sandra Allen said she wanted to give her class some enrichment.

At the District's neighborhood high schools, though, many students struggle with rudimentary skills. On a national math test given to District eighth-graders in 2007, 34 percent scored at the basic level or better. By 2011, those students will need to pass four years of math, including Algebra II, to receive a regular diploma.

Laura Slover, a D.C. State Board of Education member who is also a vice president at Achieve, said the requirement is a first step. But to meet the goal, she said, the District must improve teacher training, support students who are lagging and synchronize instruction from preschool on.

"Raising graduation requirements does not mean that all students magically meet them," Slover said.

Some advocates of expanding access to higher math said that making Algebra II a uniform expectation is a civil rights issue because the course is widely considered an important bridge to college -- a bridge that many poor or minority students miss.

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