By falling in line with other states, California is abandoning its push for all eighth-graders to take algebra.
Last month, the State Board of Education unanimously shifted away from a 15-year policy of expecting eighth-graders to take Algebra I. The state will allow them to take either Algebra I or an alternate course that includes some algebra. New state standardized tests will focus on the alternate course -- the same one adopted by most states under the Common Core curriculum being rolled out across the nation.
Supporters welcome the change as more in line with current practice, of schools offering two tracks of math for eighth-graders. But critics fear that the new standard will let schools avoid offering rigorous courses for all. They point to a report released last week showing that some schools are not placing black and Latino students in advanced math courses even when they're prepared.
The change is controversial because success in Algebra I is the single best predictor of college graduation.
Supporters say the state has adopted a more practical and effective way of teaching math. The new standards recognize that not all students can pass algebra in middle school.
"You have a lot of kids who get pushed into algebra when they're not ready," said Mark Stolan, a math teacher at Quimby Oak Middle School in San Jose. "Not only do they struggle, which is demoralizing, then they end up having to take it again."
Since 1997, California standards have included eighth-grade algebra. Under the new standards for algebra: "We are recommending you take it when you're ready," said Thomas Adams, executive director of the state's Instructional Quality Commission.
But critics say the switch could ease pressure on school districts to prepare poor and minority students for college.
"I think it's a step back," said Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has funded algebra-prep courses and has pushed for more rigor for all students.
In 2010, the state board created dual math standards: California's fast track to algebra and the Common Core approach, teaching fewer concepts in depth, leading to Algebra I in ninth grade.
But the Common Core sequence is out of sync with the progression that leads to college-bound students taking calculus in 12th grade, as expected by top-tier universities. The question of how to get kids taking the Common Core nonalgebra math on track for entrance to competitive colleges is left up to school districts.
That could mean students would have to take three years of high school math in two years. Some students do that now, said Morgan Marchbanks, assistant superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, but it's rare.
If more students stay on the Common Core track, she said, "It's going to have to move from rare to common."
Some say despite its goals, forcing too many students to take algebra in eighth grade has doomed them to fail in math. In Santa Clara County, for instance, two years ago only 44 percent of middle school students tested proficient in math; the figure was only 24 percent for Latino students. And studies show that almost 80 percent of students who retake algebra fail again.
But others argue that California's standards have produced results. Enrollment in algebra classes skyrocketed. The percentage of African-American students who took algebra grew from 24 percent to 60 percent. Latino enrollment nearly tripled to 63 percent.
Yet proficiency lags: Only 60 percent of black and Latino students tested proficient in eighth-grade algebra.
Whether the new system will produce better results will depend on how districts implement it, both sides of the debate say.
Critics point to a report released last week showing how school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties ignore objective data like test scores and grades, and they often place black and Latino ninth-graders in math classes below their level.
In fact, a majority of school districts with ninth-graders in the two counties appear to rely on at least some subjective placement, according to the study issued by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which compiled previous studies and district data. The result is that students fail to enter the college track at the beginning of high school.
"That's the alarming piece," said Oren Sellstrom, legal director for the civil rights group, which contends that school districts are violating students rights.
Some districts, when notified of racial disparities in math placement, have or will change their practices. They include the Sequoia, Jefferson, Campbell and East Side union high school districts and their feeder elementary districts.
Sequoia, which serves students from Belmont to Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, found that more than 100 students had been mistakenly placed in classes below the level at which they had tested. For example, a student may have done well in an eighth-grade algebra class but been re-enrolled in the same class in ninth grade, Marchbanks said.
So last spring the district decided to adhere strictly to a matrix of test scores and grades when making ninth-grade math placements.
"In looking at the data, we decided to do something to change it," she said.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.