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SCHWARZENEGGER IS X FACTOR IN MATH DEBATE: California Governor’s Influence Leads State Board to Mandate Testing Every Eighth Grader in Algebra

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“Education policy is leading us to getting kids access to algebra by the eighth grade, and we know that’s what leads kids to jobs and college."

Every eighth-grade student in California will be tested in algebra under a policy approved on July 9 by the California Board of Education. The action, which is scheduled to take effect within three years, could make California the first state in the nation to require an upper-level math class in middle school.

Originally, the board had been scheduled to vote on a new eighth-grade math test proposed by Jack O’Connell, the California superintendent of public instruction. But the night before, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) issued a letter asking for the more rigorous test. The board granted Schwarzenegger’s request the next day, voting eight to one to adopt his recommendation.

“I have always been a staunch supporter of high academic standards in California,” Schwarzenegger wrote in the letter. “I am asking the State Board to do away with the below grade-level General Mathematics test and chart California’s course to lead the nation in 8th grade math. I stand committed to ensuring schools have the resources needed to prepare every 8th grader to take an Algebra I standardized test.”

In the letter, Schwarzenegger calls algebra the “gateway to critical thinking, pivotal for success in science, engineering and technology” and says that the board had a choice between “high expectations” or “a two-track system: one for high achievers and one for those of whom we expect less.”

Reaction to the decision was decidedly mixed. Proponents hailed it as one that will push school districts to ensure that eighth graders are ready for algebra. Others said that the three-year time frame was too unrealistic.

According to the Associated Press, O’Connell “blasted Schwarzenegger during the nearly four-hour hearing, saying he had never seen such meddling by a governor at the last minute on a policy change that deserved rigorous public debate.” He criticized Schwarzenegger for “never [taking] the time to weigh in until last night on a policy that will have significant impact on literally tens of thousands of students” in California.

In his letter, Schwarzenegger maintains that the number of California eighth graders taking Algebra I has increased from 34 percent to 52 percent since 2003, compared with just 30 percent of eighth graders nationwide. At the hearing, O’Connell countered by saying that only about 23 percent score at the proficient level or above on standardized tests, with even smaller percentages of African American, Hispanic, and low-income students reaching proficient.

The vote became necessary after U.S. Department of Education officials discovered that California’s existing math test for students not enrolled in Algebra I did not follow the rules of the No Child Left Behind Act because it tested sixth- and seventh-grade math but was administered in eighth grade. At that point, the department said that California had to change its current eighth-grade math test by August 1 or face losing up to $4.1 million in federal funding.

In response to the vote, Holly Kuzmich, deputy chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, told the Los Angeles Times, “Education policy is leading us to getting kids access to algebra by the eighth grade, and we know that’s what leads kids to jobs and college,” she said. “We are delighted at the governor’s push for high standards.” (The link for the Los Angeles Times article is in the box below.)

Business leaders were also supportive of the decision and had lobbied for a more rigorous test for months. “This $1 million proposed ‘algebra light’ alternative test will be a disaster for California kids and teachers,” said Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Education Excellence, before the vote. “It will be a watering down of academic standards. . . . It will institutionalize a lower expectation for minority and low-income kids.”

A copy of Governor Schwarzenegger’s letter is available at http://gov.ca.gov/pdf/press/Board_of_Education_Algebra_I_Standards_FINAL.pdf.

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