9th-Grade Math Grades as Cahsee Predictor

Introduction

High school exit examinations

High school exit exams have become common in the United States and are a major source of controversy in the American education system. The Center on Education Policy (2008) states that “high school exit examinations have a significant impact on American education. Today, 68% of the nation’s public high school students attend school in the 23 states with such policies. By 2012, when three more states implement high school exit exam requirements, approximately 74% of the nation’s public high school students will be affected,” (p.1). The issue of high school exit exams is even more serious when students of color are considered. This is because of the lack of opportunities and the subsequent poor academic performance that such students experience. Currently, approximately 75% of students from ethnic minority communities attend public schools in states that have mandatory high school exit exams. This figure is most likely to rise to about 84% by the year 2012 (Center on Education Policy, 2008). The Center on Education Policy is a Washington DC-based organization that advocates for public education and for the high effectiveness of public schools. The Center assists American citizens to have a better understanding of the role that public education plays in a country as well as the need to enhance the academic value of public schools. The CEP does not stand for any particular interests. Rather, it tries to assist Americans to understand the contradictory views and opinions concerning public education and establish the provisions that will enhance the state of public schools (CEP, 2009).

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One of the roles of the CEP is to carry out a yearly assessment of high school exit exams throughout the nation. The assessment of the exit exams is done based on the unique description of each state. The exams are categorized into three groups namely: minimum-competency exams, comprehensive (previously referred to as standards-based) exams, and end-of-course exams (CEP, 2008, p. 16). The exams differ in complexity with end-of-course exams, which are standards-based and done at the end of particular courses, regarded as the most difficult. Currently, the comprehensive exams, which are normally taken by 9th and 10th-grade level students, are the most common of the three exit exams (CEP, 2008). However, the popularity of the end-of-course exams is increasing. The Center on Education Policy (2008) states that “in 2002, only 2 states used end-of-course exams. During the school year 2007-08, 4 states had policies requiring end-of-course exams. By 2015, 11 states will rely on end-of-course exams and 3 more will implement a dual testing system that includes end-of-course exams. A total of 14 states expect to use end-of-course exams by 2015,” (p. 2). During the 2007-2008 school year the total number of states requiring students to pass an exit exam before obtaining a diploma stood at 23. In addition, three additional states (Arkansas, Maryland, and Oklahoma) are in the process of implementing this condition. This implies that by the year 2012, a total of 26 states will require students to pass an exit exam before they can obtain any diploma (CEP 2007). Fascinatingly within the Unites States, the criterion used towards the earning of a high school diploma differs from state to state. In some states, for instance, students go through multiple paths before they can earn a high school diploma while in other states they go through only one path. Even in states that require exit exams, the difficulty of the exams differs from one state to another. One CEP researcher argues that a high school diploma is increasingly becoming incomparable among states. In the past, all high school diplomas in the US symbolized the completion of a number of credits and possibly the achievement of a minimum proficiency exam. Without a doubt, the diploma symbolized the attainment of certain knowledge and skills. Today, however, the diploma seems to measure something totally different which varies significantly from one state to another (CEP, 2008).

In 2007 the CEP examined the 26 states that have current or designed exit exams. Of the 26 qualified states, only the state of Oklahoma and Arkansas failed to respond to the survey questions (CEP, 2007). The survey inquired about the types of remediation and intervention strategies and policies that exist within the state’s public education system. Interestingly, out of the 24 states that completed the survey, 75% pointed out that the major purpose of the high school exit exam is to provide schools and districts with information that could be used to make important decisions (CEP, 2007, p. 11). In addition, three-fourths of the participant states said that the exams enable schools to determine the number of students who master the state’s school curriculum. A good number of the states also argued that the exams help the states to align the curriculum and programs of the local schools with the state education standards. Additionally, “75% of the participating states reported that the purpose of the exam is to determine prospective high school graduates’ mastery of the state curriculum (e.g. standards, curriculum frameworks), and 66% of the participating states reported that the purpose of the exam is to increase alignment of local curriculum and programs of instruction with the state education standards” (CEP, 2007, p. 20). The results of the survey were disappointing in the sense that very few of the participating states identified the need to prepare students for life after high school as a key purpose of the exams. The need for the high school exit exams to prepare high school students for postsecondary education and the employment sector was not identified by many states. The results of this survey helped states to reconsider the purposes of the high school exit exam. This reconsideration was evident in the 2008 CEP report which showed that many states are looking for ways that could make the exit exams adequate enough to prepare students for postsecondary education as well as the labor market.

Presently the execution and effectiveness of exit exams are challenged by research studies that show that the exams have no significant effect on student achievement. For instance, a study carried out by Grodsky, Warren, and Kalogrides showed that the high school exit exams have no substantial impact on students’ reading and math skills and achievement. This finding was applicable to both the simpler minimum-competency exams and the more difficult comprehensive exams. The scholars explained that “the absence of effects for even more difficult exams may be due to the small number of years that some states have had the more difficult exams, or it may be that the “more difficult” exams are not substantially more difficult than minimum-competency exams, (as cited in CEP, 2008, p.27). The 2008 CEP report goes on to assert that the lack of significant effect of exit exams on students’ achievement occurred throughout all social and economic groups of students and are therefore not deserving of the huge economic and personal costs that students, parents, teachers, and the general public incur through high school exit exams,” (CEP, 2008, p.29).

Remediation and intervention

The implementation of high school exit exams has been directly linked to the increasing high school dropout rates of students particularly students from ethnic and racial minority communities. As a result of this negative association, high school exit exams are normally accompanied by two major types of strategies that help students to increase their opportunities of excelling in the exams and earning a high school diploma. These two strategies include remediation and intervention. Intervention refers to the aid that is offered to students before taking the exit exam. The main purpose of intervention is to raise the number of students who excel in the exit exam the first time they take it. The second strategy is remediation. Remediation refers to the aid that is offered to students after taking the exit exam. It is offered to students who failed to pass the exit exam after taking it for the first time. It, therefore, targets the particular skills, sections, and principles that the student failed during the first attempt, rather than the entire exam (HumRRO, 2008). The Center on Education Policy admits however that majority of the states lack the ability to correctly assess the intervention and remediation strategies they put into practice. Despite this, many states and school districts spend a lot of time, effort, and resources toward increasing the rates of passing on the exit exams. In addition, states are required to develop ways of evaluating and establishing the effectiveness of the various strategies they utilize (CEP, 2007).

The 2007 report of CEP examined the intervention and remediation policies that states with exit exams are using to increase the pass rates. The report discovered that the most common type of assistance was remediation for students who did not pass the exam during their first try. In particular, the report found that fifteen states offer aid and/or remediation to assist districts support students who have failed in their initial attempt to pass the exit exam. Of the fifteen states, two provide supplementary funds for remediation and support of students. California, for instance, reported providing $70 million in grants to help students who did not pass the exit exam in grade 10 (CEP, 2007). A number of states are creating remediation programs that center directly on students, for instance, programs that provide students with study guides and assist schools to recognize and target students for extra assistance. Other states are channeling their resources towards administrators and teachers by offering professional development on content and standard/formative evaluation (CEP, 2007). Such enormous remediation programs are not accompanied without cost. In 2006, the CEP reported that California, Arizona, and Washington—three states which have recently implemented the exit exams as a graduating criterion—have increased their spending on remediation. “California has almost tripled its spending on remediation during the past year, from about $20 million for 2005-06 to more than $57 million for 2006-07, while Washington plans to spend more than $28 million on remediation in 2006-07,” (CEP, 2006, p.3-4).

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In the same report, the CEP reports that in Indiana and Massachusetts where exit exam requirements were implemented several years ago, spending for remediation has been cut. This trend of the initial increase in remediation spending and later reduction in the same could be due to the diminishing need for remediation that results when instruction is better aligned with standards and exams. The trend could also be due to the gradual diminishing of the media and public scrutiny of the exit exams and the subsequent lessened political pressure on remediation (CEP, 2006, p.4).

In addition to remediation offered to students who fail to pass the exam during their initial attempt, schools, districts, and states are required to provide intervention to reduce the number of students who fail the exam when they first sit for it. Some states give remedial coursework for students to complete to develop their skills before taking the exam for the first time. During the 2006 survey of states’ intervention strategies, the CEP found that the majority of the states with exit exams encourage students to take added courses in the tested subjects—typically reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Most prominent is the pressure that states have in encouraging students to take more mathematics courses in earlier grades (Education Trust-West, 2006). Indiana state officials asserted that students are encouraged to take Algebra I as freshmen whereas Massachusetts state officials stated bigger stress on having students complete courses in algebra and geometry by the completion of their sophomore year (CEP, 2006). States are also offering interventions such as in-class appraisals of tested content and skills as well as test preparation lessons and activities for all students before taking exit exams for the first time (CEP, 2007).

Instruction

While instructional pacing guides and benchmark testing may be increasing consistency in curriculum and instruction, the pace at which instruction and curriculum are delivered is increasing. Some teachers reported serious concerns about their inability to cover topics in-depth or to allow their students enough time to master skills (CEP, 2007). Many teachers commented that exit exam interventions and remediation are decreasing the kinds of higher-level skills they used to teach in their classrooms. This was supported by students, who pointed out that test-taking preparation activities and test-taking skills were taught during academic instructional time. In addition, almost all the high schools we studied required students who had failed an exit exam to take an additional class in that subject. This second class often focused on basic remedial skills needed to pass the exit exam. This practice led to another concern; some teachers and administrators reported that increasing instructional time in reading and math often led to decreased flexibility in the core curriculum and loss of electives for students, particularly students with low academic performance (CEP, 2007, p. 46). One factor for the failure of public education to educate children to proficiency is the lack of curriculum alignment, which does not align written, taught, and tested curriculum, and in the end, does not allow students to perform successfully on mandated assessments.

Exit exams and graduation rates

One of the controversies surrounding the high school exit exams is their effect on graduation rates. Some research studies indicate that rather than having a positive effect, the exit exams have a negative effect on the graduation rates. This is despite the fact that the graduation rate is affected by several other factors. Students may be forced to drop out of school when they fail to pass the exit exam, particularly on a subsequent basis. However, some studies also show that some students who drop out of school pass the exit exams thereby supporting the fact that the decision to drop out is influenced by a number of factors besides the inability to pass the exit exams (HumRRO, 2006). During the year 2005, there was vigorous opposition to exit exams in California, which had started to withhold diplomas, as well as in Washington State, which had plans to start withholding diplomas in the year 2008. Even in these states with active opposition towards exit exams, opinion polls showed that the majority of citizens were in favor of the exit exams (CEP, 2006).

Opposition towards the exit exams was most likely due to the fact that many people saw it as contradictory to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act which does not mandate students to pass an exam in order to graduate from high school. The NCLB act however requires that students should go through annual testing while in grades 3-8 and once during their high school years. Interestingly, the majority of the state high school exit exams are also utilized as the high school test for NCLB reasons, although for many states, the passing grade for the receipt of a high school diploma is lower than the “proficient” level required by NCLB. Nevertheless, NCLB continues to provide a strong motivation for states to institute new ways of enhancing students’ performance in exit exams. In high schools that are awarded federal Title I funds in specific, high failure rates imply that these schools are less able to make sufficient annual improvement as described by NCLB and more able to consequently enter the law’s improvement position. Districts are required to provide school alternative and tutoring services and may be forced to restructure schools, or the districts themselves. One means of enhancing the test performance and evading these sanctions is through the use of student support programs (CEP, 2006, p.33). The NCLB Act is also one of the major reasons why schools spend more time on mathematic and reading. In addition, schools spend more time focusing on the tested subjects and less time on the non-tested subjects and electives.

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It is impracticable to assess whether variations in curriculum and instruction are mainly a result of exit exams, NCLB, or other factors. However, media reports show that “doubling-up” of tested subjects is being done in many states, such as Texas, California, Florida, and Washington (CEP, 2006, p.51). Even though the research is not completely conclusive, other research studies propose that exit exams may have a somewhat negative impact on graduation rates, but the exams do not appear to rank highly on the list of factors that influence a student’s decision to drop out. Exit exams do appear to have an important effect on curriculum (Holme and Rogers, 2005). In a study carried out by the CEP for the report, state education officials asserted that students are encouraged to take additional courses in tested subjects, such as reading, writing, mathematics and science (CEP, 2006). The Center on Education Policy (2002) researchers believed that more research needs to be done in the field of high stakes exit exams to recognize and minimize the negative effects of the exams and to determine if exit exams improve student learning.

Literature review

The California High School Exit Exam

Formation

The journey to the formation of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) began when California implemented a comprehensive program to enhance its educational standards and accountability after the Public School Accountability Act was passed in 1999. This Act was backed by the former Secretary of Education Gary Hart, the former Governor of California State Gray Davis, and a number of chief legislators (Abdullah-Welsh, Diaz, Holmes, and Horowitz, 2005). The Act led to the formation of content standards in a number of subjects, a mechanism of statewide student testing, goals for achievement growth for each of the state’s public schools, as well as a system of financial rewards for commendable schools and personnel. The CAHSEE is one of the major components of this accountability program (Zau & Betts, 2008, p.5-6). Besides conforming to the Public School Accountability Act of 1999, the California State legislature introduced a new condition that mandates students to excel in a graduation exam in the English language arts (ELA) and mathematics starting with the graduating Class of 2004 (HumRRO, 2008, p.1).

The California Department of Education argues that the state legislature’s key purpose of proposing the CAHSEE was to drastically enhance the performance of students in high schools and to make sure that students who graduate from high school are able to exhibit grade level proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics (California Department of Education, 2009). The exit exam was therefore created in accordance with the recommendations set by the High School Exit Examination Standards Panel. The panel’s members were selected by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and accepted by the State Board of Education. This was authorized by Education Code Section 60850 which asserted that the CAHSEE should be developed in line with the State Board of Education (SBE)-approved content principles in language arts and mathematics (California Department of Education, 2009).

When putting into practice the CAHSEE, the State Board of Education provided the exam for the very first time in the spring of 2001 to volunteer ninth graders (class of 2004) as a pilot test. In October 2001, the Assembly Bill 1609 (Calderon) abolished the alternative for ninth graders to take the CAHSEE starting with the 2002 administration. The CAHSEE was next offered in the spring of 2002 to all tenth graders who had failed to pass it during the spring of 2001 (California Department of Education, 2009). A new twist to the CAHSEE however took place in 2003 when the State Board of Education deferred the requirement of taking the CAHSEE for the graduating class of 2004. This decision was reached after the Board found out that a huge number of students from the ethnic and racial minority communities were far away from satisfying both parts of the exam. It was then that the State Board of Education agreed that the graduating class of 2006 would be the first lot to be required to pass the exam in order to obtain the high school diploma. In addition, this decision was followed by the revision of the CAHSEE. According to Zau & Betts (2008), “the ELA portion of the test was reduced from two days to one day, mainly by reducing the number of essays from two to one” and the math content “was revised and simplified, such that student pass rates on the math portion rose significantly in the new version,” (p.6). The number of students from the 2006 graduating class who passed the CAHSEE stood at 90.4 percent. The remaining students who failed to pass the exam were unable to graduate. The only students who were exempted from this condition were students who were enrolled in the special education programs. This marked the first time that California high school students were denied high school diplomas due to the failing of the exit exam (HumRRO, 2008, p.43).

CAHSEE and Special Education students

When the CAHSEE was first instituted, it was accompanied by heated debate concerning its implementation and its potential effect on students enrolled in special education programs. For instance, the exit exam was challenged in court through the Kidd et al. vs. O’Connell et al. This case was initially known as the Chapman v. California case and was filed on behalf of students with disabilities (HumRRO, 2008, p.44). The case was a class action lawsuit that confronted the justice of the CAHSEE for students who have different disabilities. The suit was filed in state superior court in 2002 by the Disability Rights Advocates – a non-profit organization – in conjunction with a Bay Area law firm. The plaintiffs asserted that forcing students with disabilities to excel in an exam that could be more than their abilities is prejudiced and not a suitable gauge of these students’ abilities. The state, on the other hand, argued that these students ought to be held accountable for similar expectations like the rest of the students to make sure that the students with disabilities obtain the best possible education (Center on Education Policy, 2006). This case was resolved out of court but it created exemptions for students with disabilities. The exemptions were first applied to the graduating class of 2006 in which the students with disabilities were not required to pass the CAHSEE as long as they were in a position to meet other graduation conditions and as long as they had sat for the exam at least twice, “including once during their senior year, taking it at least once with appropriate accommodations, and taking it after receiving remediation,” (Center on Education Policy, 2006, p.17). In addition, the settlement appealed to the legislature and the state governor to implement legislation that reflects the agreement reached in the case. Failure to do so, the plaintiffs asserted they would take the case back to court (Center on Education Policy, 2006).

Due to the settlement reached in this case, the California state legislature developed laws that tried to excuse students of special education programs of both the graduating class of 2006 and the class of 2007 from the CAHSEE requirement. This exemption was meant to serve as a short-term solution as the state legislators began a search for a long-term solution. In October 2005, however, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger prohibited the Assembly bill arguing that it was in contrast to the terms and conditions of the settlement (Center on Education Policy, 2006). Ultimately Governor Schwarzenegger and the state legislators managed to come to an agreement and Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Senate Bill 517 which excused students with disabilities in the class of 2006 from having to take the exit exam (Center on Education Policy, 2007). Later on in 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger also signed the Senate Bill 267 which gave certain students with disabilities of the graduating class of 2007 an extra one-year exception of the prerequisite to excel in the CAHSEE (CEP, 2007). The final settlement was declared in March 2008 by the Judicial Council Proceeding 4468 which “reinstated the requirement that students with disabilities pass the CAHSEE and requiring the California Department of Education to conduct a study of students with disabilities who are unable to pass,” (HumRRO, 2008a, p.44).

Purpose of the CAHSEE

The California Department of Education states that the purpose of the CAHSEE is to significantly improve pupil achievement in public high schools and to ensure that pupils who graduate from public high schools can demonstrate grade level competency in reading, writing, and mathematics. The CAHSEE helps schools to recognize students who are not able to gain skills that are necessary for life after high school. The exam also encourages districts to provide such students with the attention and resources they need in order to attain these skills during their years in high school. All students attending California public schools are required to meet the CAHSEE requirement, in addition to all the rest of the state and local prerequisites so as to earn a high school diploma. The CAHSEE prerequisite is satisfied by excelling in the exam or, for students with disabilities, obtaining a local waiver in accordance with the Education Code Section 60851(c) (California Department of Education, 2009).

There are additional reasons as to why states mandate high school exit exams. According to the 2007 CEP survey, majority of the states implement high school exit exams to enable schools to align their curricular with the state standards of education. Although California is one of the states that conform to this purpose, the state’s exit exam also serves another important purpose. The exams are meant to prepare students for life after high school particularly for postsecondary education as well as the competitive labor market (California Department of Education, 2009). On an annual basis, the external research firm Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) evaluates the effectiveness and success of CAHSEE. In the year 2008, HumRRO stated that, “the primary rationale for implementing the CAHSEE requirement is that the need for students to meet this requirement would lead to improved instruction and increased student motivation, to the end that more students would acquire skills critical to their success after high school (HumRRO, 2008, p. 117). This finding is contradictory to the finding of the Center for Education Policy’s study that had been carried out during the past year. According to the CEP study, out of the 24 states that completed the survey, 75% pointed out that the major purpose of the high school exit exam is to provide schools and districts with information that could be used to make important decisions (CEP, 2007, p. 11). In addition, three-fourths of the participant states said that the exams enable schools to determine the number of students who master the state’s school curriculum. A good number of the states also argued that the exams help the states to align the curriculum and programs of the local schools with the state education standards (CEP, 2007, p.20). Additionally, “75% of the participating states reported that the purpose of the exam is to determine prospective high school graduates’ mastery of the state curriculum (e.g. standards, curriculum frameworks), and 66% of the participating states reported that the purpose of the exam is to increase alignment of local curriculum and programs of instruction with the state education standards” (CEP, 2007, p. 20). California therefore seems to differ from other states in recognizing the need for schools to prepare their students for life after high school as is evidenced in the purpose statement of its exit exam.

The CAHSEE exam structure

The CAHSEE is composed of two major parts: the English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics. The ELA component seeks to address the content standards of the state through grade ten and it is composed of two parts also namely: reading and writing (Holme and Rogers, 2005). The reading part encompasses vocabulary, decoding, comprehension, and analysis of information and literary texts. The writing component on the other hand encompasses writing strategies, applications, and the conventions of English (for instance, grammar, spelling, and punctuation). The mathematics part of the CAHSEE seeks to address state standards in grades six and seven as well as Algebra I. The exam is composed of statistics, data analysis and probability, number sense, measurement and geometry, mathematical reasoning, and algebra. Students are also required to show a strong base in computation and arithmetic, such as the ability to work with decimals, fractions, and percents (California Department of Education, 2009). The major purpose of the two components of CAHSEE therefore is to assess the mastery of English by high school students at grade 10 and the mastery of math at grade 8. While in their high school years, students have a maximum of six chances to take the CAHSEE, once while in grade 10, twice while in grade 11, and three times while in grade 12. The remediation strategy of the CAHSEE provides the students with the opportunity to take only the section in which they have failed, that is, incase they fail the exit exam. Hence, if students fail the exam, they do not have to re-do the whole exam, only the components which they failed (Zau & Betts, 2008, p.6). Students are required to pass with at least 55% on the math component, and 60% on the English component.

Studies however show that only about 7 percent of the state’s high school students fail to pass the exam by the end of their senior year. Both the English and Math components of the CAHSEE are composed of multiple-choice questions. Students who fail to pass any of the components have to re-take them until they pass. Failure to do so translates into the inability of the students to earn a high school diploma. The reason given for this is that students who fail in the exam are not well equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge and hence they cannot graduate from high school. In addition, the state laws necessitates that the CAHSEE should be taken only on the dates that have been chosen by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. All students are obliged to take the CAHSEE for the very first time in grade ten. Students who fail to pass one or both parts of the CAHSEE in grade ten have the opportunity to take the failed parts “up to two times per school year in grade eleven and up to five times per school year in grade twelve. Adult students may take the parts not passed up to three times per school year,” (California Department of Education, 2009).

Challenges facing the CAHSEE

The Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) produced its eighth annual report in October 2007 that was presented to the State Board of Education. A number of conclusions were drawn from the evaluation report evaluation. First, the report found that even though many students now complete Algebra I/Integrated Math I by the end of their 12th grade, students who complete these courses in earlier grades benefit more than those who complete the same courses in later grades. For instance, the report found that in the year 2007, 68% of students in the 12th grade who had completed Algebra I while in the 8th grade attained a passing score on the math part of the CAHSEE. On the other hand, only 32.7% of students in the 12th grade who completed Algebra I while in 12th grade attained a passing score in CAHSEE (Center on Education Policy, 2008b, p.29). This observation is supportive of the findings of study carried out by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) titled, Predicting Success, Preventing Failure: An Investigation of the California High School Exit Exam. The researchers in this study, Andrew Zau and Julian Betts, examined the test scores and other data for students in the San Diego Unified School District. From this observation, the researchers found that, in San Diego, only a minute percentage of the seniors who had not passed CAHSEE in the 2005-06 school year redid the exam the subsequent school year, and out of the ones who re-sat the exam, only 3.1% attained passing scores. Most significantly, the researchers asserted that students at risk of not passing the CAHSEE can be recognized as early as the fourth grade. They further stated that academic grade point average (GPA) is the strongest predicting factor of future results on the CAHSEE, followed by absenteeism and classroom behavior. In addition, the researchers stated that students from ethnic minority communities, English language learners and students with disabilities have fewer opportunities to excel in the CAHSEE than their counterparts. In addition to the GPA, classroom behavior and absenteeism, other factors that predict success in CAHSEE include “a one-point increase in GPA, a large increase in math and ELA scores on the California Standards Test in 9th grade, and early achievement of English language fluency for ELL students,” (Center on Education Policy, 2008, p.29).

The findings of the Public Policy Institute of California study are at odds with California’s assembly bills 128 and 347, which concentrate on funding for remediation and supplementary aid for students at grade 12 and two years after grade 12. The scholars propose that an “early warning system” should be developed in order to recognize students who are at risk of failing the exam so that more funds are channeled towards them. In addition, the researchers called for more meticulous studies to establish the effect of assembly bills 128 and 347; and rigorous assessment of alternative interventions (Center on Education Policy, 2008b, p. 29).

To investigate the impact of California’s exit exam on the outcomes of students, HumRRO researchers have been following the trends of exit exam pass rates and dropout rates. The researchers have also been examining the strictness of coursework that students undertake while in high school as well as the students’ preparedness to join college as supplementary pointers of student success. In the evaluation report of 2006, HumRRO reported varied results concerning the indicators of success of California high school students. First, the proportion of students who took the SAT fell in 2003 and 2004 but later rose fairly in 2005. At the same time, the number of students who earned a joint score of 1000 or more reached a higher level in 2005, and the standard SAT score rose progressively between 2003 and 2005. On the contrary, the number of students who took the ACT rose during the same time period, but the standard ACT scores have remained comparatively even (Center on Education Policy, 2006, p.52). Secondly, the number of students taking part in Advanced Placement exams has increased steadily since 2002, and the number of passing scores of 3 or higher has also increased (Center on Education Policy, 2006, p.52).

Third, the University of California and California State University systems have created a catalog of courses referred to as the “A-G courses” that incoming freshmen are required to undertake. The number of high school graduates who have gone through the A-G courses has been somewhat stable at approximately 30 percent of each year’s graduating class (Center, 2006, p.52). Fourth, the number of California high school graduates who enroll as first-time freshmen fell in both University of California and California State University institutions in 2003 and 2004, whereas the rates of enrollment in California community colleges fell in 2003 then rose slightly in 2004 (Center on Education Policy, 2006, p.52). These results show a diverse outlook of the situation of education in California high schools in the last recent years (Center on Education Policy, 2006, p.52).

Math education in California

California High School graduation requirements have been raised to ensure that all students pass Algebra I as a graduation requirement (CDE) (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 39). For instance, as others have done previously, the researchers pointed to algebra as a tripwire for many students (Landsberg, 2008). Seventy percent of students who passed Algebra 1 by the end of ninth grade went on to graduate on time (Landsberg, 2008). But the majority of students did not pass it in eighth or ninth grades, and roughly two-thirds of them failed to graduate on time (Landsberg, 2008). Aside from mentioning special remediation courses, states most often responded that students are being encouraged to take more courses in the tested subjects—typically reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Most notable is the push to have students take more mathematics courses earlier.

The math performance of American students is significantly lower in the public urban secondary school across the country and specifically in California. This has been evidenced by student performance on state assessments and the high percentage of students not passing the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) which is a state required graduation requirement. These facts increased the focus on K-12 math performance from both state and federal agencies (Abrahamson, 2007, p. xi). The efforts to improve math performance, has been facilitated through different policy initiatives and the publication of school accountability reports which include the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), the Annual Performance Index (API) and the required passing of the high school exit exam. All of these have increased the level of accountability and pressure on the school districts and the individual schools to ensure that the instructional programs at every school are based on the California Content Standards as a vehicle for improved math performance (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 11)

This is of greater importance as it relates to countries such as China and India who are quickly gaining in their status as influential countries in the world economy and who are out performing our students; particularly in the areas of mathematics (Rouse, 2005). This has potential ramifications on our abilities to remain as influential leaders in the world as the advancement in technologies have created a world in which education is essential and math is a gatekeeper to many of the new jobs that are available today and for the future (Sack, 2004; Abrahamson, 2007, p. 27-8).

Although there has been some improvement in mathematics performance of American students in the past few decades, such improvement has been incremental and insufficient, particularly for minority students (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 28). Statistics provided by the United States Department of Labor (2005) indicate correlation between an individual’s math ability and their average hourly wages, namely those individuals who demonstrate a minimal level of math competency also earn less (Abrahamson, 2007, p.28). The findings from the first TIMSS (1995) indicated that the students in the United States performed poorly in comparison to students at the same grade levels in other countries (NCES, 2004; Abrahamson, 2007, p.31). The importance of a strong mathematics education is not only a significant indicator of success in college but is also important for the future of the country and its ability to compete in the global information age (Abrahamson, 2007, p.38). Even twenty years ago, the necessary math skills for individuals to be competitive and marketable for both the entrance into the university and work force was much less demanding. To be admitted into a four-year university the successful completion of geometry was sufficient or if one was to become a mechanic they did not have to have algebra, geometry or calculus knowledge. Today for students to meet the minimum requirements for college they must have completed at least three years of higher level math for entrance into the university (Abrahamson, 2007). The need for higher level math skills and a conceptual and operational understanding extends to the vocational fields as well (NCES, 1997). This is a relatively new requirement and a direct result of increased level of sophistication and technological advancements (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 40).

Student academic achievement in math presents a significant area of concern as evidenced by standardized tests (Walsh, 2005). Math is a gateway subject and the poor performance of our urban youth in mathematics further exacerbates the lack of opportunities they already face, as well as their future access to higher education (Abrahamson, 2007, p.2). One of the most valid and important predictors of success in college is the preparation the students receive while in high school; this is most significant for math, specifically the completion of higher level math while in high school (Adelman, 1999; Abrahamson, 2007, p.41). Algebra is the “gatekeeper” course that high school students must take to enroll in advanced mathematics in high school (Gram, 2000; Abrahamson, 2007, p.41). Of the students who completed a calculus class while in high school, 83 percent of these students received their bachelor’s degree (NCES, 2003). A mathematics program that is effective has been identified as having nine elements all of which contribute to the students having demonstrated mastery, knowledge and understanding; assessment, instruction, instructional time, instructional resources, instructional grouping, classroom management, professional development, administrative practices, community, and involvement (Abrahamson, 2007, p.59). Additionally there are three other elements that have been identified as essential for an instructional math program to be effective. Students must be able to demonstrate a basic computational and procedural skill levels; to have a conceptual understanding and be able to problem solve (Kurlaender, Reardon and Jackson, 2008; Abrahamson, 2007, p.59). Although more students are completing Algebra I/Integrated Math I by 12th grade, students benefit most from completing these courses in earlier grades. In 2007, 68% of 12th graders who completed Algebra I in 8th grade achieved a passing score on the math part of the CAHSEE. Yet only 32.7% of 12th graders who completed Algebra I in 12th grade achieved a passing score.

The state of algebra in California schools

Majority of the California policymakers and educators consent to the fact that all students should take and understand algebra and that they should do so from the early grades. From the late 1990s, state officials have utilized evaluation and accountability policies as powerful levers to encourage schools to enroll more 8th and 9th grade students in Algebra 1 courses. In the process, schools have raised expectations and afforded greater opportunity to thousands of previously undeserved students. Nearly 45,000 more California 8th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s Algebra I test in 2008 than in 2003. Nearly 26,000 more low-income 8th graders did so. However, too many California students still struggle to get through the Algebra 1 gateway leading to more rigorous math and science courses in high school. Participation for all clearly does not translate automatically into success for all (EdSource, 2009, p.1). Many call for strengthening math instruction, particularly in the late elementary and middle grades, as the crucial next step in moving California toward its goals. Some also say this is an opportune moment for California to consider its mathematics policies more broadly, including its academic content standards and annual assessments.

California’s math content standards and the ambiguity of the state’s Algebra 1 expectations

The State Board of Education adopted California’s academic content standards in mathematics in December 1997. These standards, in conjunction with state testing and accountability policy, have pushed schools to enroll students in algebra earlier, optimally in 8th grade. The state did not require 8th graders to take algebra, however. So far, the only official expectation has been that students in the class of 2004 and later must pass a course that meets or exceeds the standards for Algebra 1 to graduate from high school. Three concepts help explain how algebra fits into the state’s math content standards and how those standards relate to what is taught in schools.

California’s math content standards are organized differently for grades K-7 than for grades 8-12

In grades K-7, California’s math content standards are set for each grade level. Teachers are expected to help students develop increasingly sophisticated computational and procedural skills, conceptual understanding and problem solving along five interrelated strands that extend across grades K-7. These five strands include: number sense; algebra and functions; measurement and geometry; statistics, data analysis, and probability; and mathematical reasoning. In grades 8-12, however, California’s math content standards are organized into nine specialized disciplines rather than by grade level. These disciplines include: Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra II, Probability and Statistics, Trigonometry, Linear Algebra, Mathematical Analysis, Advanced Placement Probability and Statistics, and Calculus. This California practice diverges from federal assumptions under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) which groups grades K-8 together and treats grades 9-12 separately. The annual California Standards Tests (CSTs) in mathematics reflect the state’s approach. Students in grades 2-6 all take a single CST for each grade. A grade-level CST is also administered in grade 7, but a small percentage of 7th graders enrolled in algebra take the Algebra 1 CST instead. Students in grades 8-11 take different math CSTs depending on what courses they take. Those 8th and 9th graders who are not yet ready for algebra take the General Mathematics CST, which is aligned with the math content standards for grades 6 and 7.

Algebra as a content standard is different from algebra as a course or part of a curriculum

Every California high school must provide courses that fulfill the minimum criteria for eligibility to the University of California and the California State University. But California’s math content standards do not call for any discipline-specific course to be taught in any particular grade between 8 and 12. Instead, the standards acknowledge that districts might adopt different philosophies and approaches toward their math curricula. That said, algebra is still the minimum standard for the content the state hopes a growing number of students will learn beginning in grade 8.

Mandatory testing and accountability policies push schools to meet standards and increase participation in higher math

The California Education Code establishes that the academic content standards are intended as models. The math content standards note, “except for the statutes, regulations, and court decisions that are referenced herein, the document is exemplary, and compliance with it is not mandatory. In addition, schools are required to offer the annual CSTs in grades 2-11. The CSTs provide a strong incentive for local educators to align instruction with content standards because the tests are used to report publicly on the academic progress of schools and districts, and to identify those considered “in need of improvement,” (EdSource, 2009, p.4). In addition, California accountability policy explicitly encourages participation in higher math courses, e.g. Algebra 1.

Growth of number of students taking Algebra 1

This growth in participation has been accompanied by a higher success rate on the Algebra 1 CST, with greater numbers of students scoring advanced or proficient. However, a great many students are not succeeding in the course, and large numbers repeat it once or more. There are two ways to measure the success of California’s policy decisions regarding algebra. The first is student participation in higher math courses; the second is student success in those courses. Considered together, these two measures show that California schools have changed their collective approach to the time when students take Algebra 1. To the extent that SBE policy has been motivated by concern that schools were not being held to sufficiently high expectations for student achievement in grade 8 math, there have clearly been important changes in the state. Early student participation in Algebra 1 has increased greatly in recent years. For instance, “the number of 8th graders taking Algebra 1 increased from 151,714 in 2003 to 190,179 in 2004, 224,291 in 2005, 230,284 in 2006, 239,240 in 2007 and 247,810 in 2008,” (EdSource, 2009, p.5). Increase in the number of students taking Algebra 1 has also been realized among students from ethnic minority communities. For instance, “the percentage of African American 8th graders taking the test nearly doubled between 2003 and 2008, from 24% to 47%. The same is also true for Latino 8th graders (26% to 48%) (EdSource, 2009, p.6).

Retake of Algebra 1

California math educators and policymakers interpret the Algebra 1 CST data presented so far in differing ways. But most agree that too many students are repeating the course, sometimes multiple times. California is now able to quantify this problem more precisely using student-level data. These data show that 38% of 9th graders who took the Algebra 1 CST in 2008 had taken the test in a prior year. More than half of 10th and 11th graders who took the CST were repeating it as well (Marchant and Paulson, 2005). Repeating Algebra 1 in grade 10 or later is of particular concern because it can prevent students from completing college-prep courses in science that have algebra as a prerequisite. These data also raise larger questions about current students’ preparation to take advantage of earlier access to algebra. Many students who repeat the Algebra 1 CST may have struggled in math in earlier grades as well. Some worry that continuous lack of success in math can have the pernicious effect of convincing some students they are unable to understand and use mathematics. At the extreme, some say repeated algebra course failure causes some students to disengage from school entirely and drop out. In addition, some students who pass Algebra 1 in grade 8 might be placed in the course again by high schools that criticize the quality of 8th grade courses (EdSource, 2009, p.9).

Reference List

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