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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Algebra 2: Not the Same Credential It Used to Be?
Posted: Sep 5, 2013 7:05 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, September 4, 2013. See
Algebra 2: Not the Same Credential It Used to Be?

By Erik Robelen

If a student's transcript shows the successful completion of Algebra
2, what does that really mean? Although a lot more students today are
completing the course, a new analysis suggests that line on the
transcript means less than in days of yore.

"Taking and successfully completing an Algebra II course, which once
certified high school students' mastery of advanced topics in algebra
and solid preparation for college-level mathematics, no longer means
what it once did," writes Tom Loveless of the Brooking Institution in
a blog post. "The credentialing integrity of Algebra II has
weakened." [SEE

The post by Loveless addresses one dimension of a broader study he
just completed on "assessing algebra in a national and international

His conclusion about Algebra 2 is based mainly on a look at recent
data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed
"the nation's report card."

The good news is that the percentage of 17-year-olds who successfully
complete a second year of algebra has climbed from 44 percent in 1986
to 76 percent in 2012, according to NAEP survey data he cites. The
trouble? At the same time, their average NAEP math scores have
declined. From 1992 to 2012, the score for these Algebra 2-completers
dipped by 10 points on the zero-to-500 NAEP scale. Presumably, if
more students were getting more math, the average score would have
risen considerably.

Here's a chart from the Loveless analysis: Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17
year-olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra [See

Loveless said he examined the NAEP data more carefully to be sure
there was no mistaking the trend line. He looked at the scores
separately for blacks, Hispanics, and whites. In all cases, the
average math scores for those completing Algebra 2 declined since
1986, the earliest year such data were available.

So, what's going on here? Loveless said it's impossible to say for
sure. He suggests it may well be a result of more low-performing
students taking the course in 2012 than in prior years. It could also
be that today's Algebra 2 textbooks are of lower quality, or that
Algebra 2 teachers are not as effective as they once were.

"There are several plausible theories," he writes in the report. "The
point here is that the completion of Algebra II has lost some of its
luster as a credentialing mechanism, as a signal to prospective
colleges and employees of a student's accomplishments in learning

In an interview, Loveless leaned toward an explanation based on
changes in the preparation level of students who take Algebra 2,
combined with how educators respond to that new reality.

"Something is changing, and I think it's the kids" taking the course,
he said. "I hear from teachers all the time, that they're really not
able to teach Algebra 2 anymore. They teach Algebra 1.5. ... It
appears that the courses don't cover the material that the course
title implies."

He adds, "Kids are coming out of these advanced courses with good
grades and they [enter] a four-year college and can't pass the
placement test, and have to take remedial math," he said.

(In his blog post, he cites recent data from California State
University to back this assertion. In 2012, about 30 percent of
entering freshmen taking the entry-level math test failed it and were
placed in remedial math classes, despite earning a mean GPA of 3.15
in college-prep high school programs.)

Transcript Study

A high school transcript study issued earlier this year sheds some
light on this issue of what's being taught, though it does not cover
Algebra 2.[SEE ]
Researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics analyzed
textbooks used in Algebra 1, geometry, and integrated math courses.
As NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley told Education Week, "We found that
there is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra 1 and
geometry courses." In fact, the analysis found that labels such as
"honors" and "regular" provide no guidance as to the rigor of
courses. Less than one in five students who took an Algebra 1 course
called "honors" encountered a curriculum that the researchers coded
as "rigorous."

Just recently, the issue of poor math achievement for high schoolers
was raised in the Montgomery County school district in Maryland, one
of the state's highest-achieving school systems. The Washington Post
reported that large numbers of students failed various math exams.
]In all, 57 percent of students failed the districtwide final exam in
Algebra 2, while 62 percent failed the geometry exam and 61 percent
the Algebra 1 exam. By contrast, only 12 percent of students failed
the Algebra 2 course, and 16 percent the geometry course, far below
the failure rates on the districtwide exams.

As for the new Brookings study, it does not simply look at the
question about what Algebra 2 on a transcript really means. The
study's main focus is on the need to measure "in a sound, trustworthy
manner" national progress in learning algebra. Current national and
international exams do not accomplish this, the study says. (It
notes, for instance, that NAEP does not address all the topics
covered in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, and that it's also both "too
early" and "too late," since the exams that include algebra content
come at grades 8 and 12.) The study identifies only five states that
currently offer an end-of-course exam in Algebra 2.

The Brookings research also raises questions about the forthcoming
common-core exams. While the PARCC coalition is developing
end-of-course exams for Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and geometry, the
Smarter Balanced consortium is developing a comprehensive test that
will encompass content learned in either a traditional math sequence
of Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and geometry, or a set of integrated courses.

The Common Core State Standards in math set the expectation that all
students will master math content at what's generally considered the
Algebra 2 level. In a recent Education Week story, I took a closer
look at how states and districts are responding to those provisions.
For one, even though it's true that Algebra 2 completion rates are
up, one-quarter of students today do not take the course. And despite
the common-core expectations, fewer than half of all states currently
require students to complete Algebra 2 to graduate. [SEE ]

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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