This valuable paper from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings sounds an important alarm: “The danger is that grade inflation, the often discussed phenomenon of students receiving higher and higher grades for mediocre academic achievement, has been joined by course inflation. Completing advanced math courses does not mean what it once meant because course titles no longer signify the mathematics that students have studied and learned.”

In brief, algebra is indeed an important gatekeeper subject for students to master if they are going to go anywhere at all in math. That’s why there’s been so much pressure from so many directions to get more kids to take Algebra I as early as possible, preferably in eighth grade, and then to make sure they take Algebra II during high school. There is no doubt that enrollments in—and completions of—courses with those labels have risen dramatically. Yet there is mounting evidence—which this paper does an excellent job of aggregating, analyzing and explaining—that the labels no longer signify what they once did and that, while youngsters who have passed such courses may have “credentials,” they have not, in fact, learned much math and are not, in fact, prepared for what follows.

If course completion and teacher grades don’t prove mastery of the subject matter—the knowledge and skills—that the “real world” (mainly employers and college professors) believe is associated with passing such courses, then external monitoring and assessing is required. But Loveless goes to some pains to demonstrate the weakness of most of today’s assessments in that regard—and his frail hopes for the Common Core assessments to solve that problem. What seems to be called for are high-quality end-of-course exams at the state or national level—but that’s exactly what several states (most conspicuously Texas) have recently decided to do less of going forward.

It should be noted (though Loveless doesn’t) that this analysis also illuminates the absurdity of one argument that has raged around the Common Core—namely, whether they do or don’t expect kids to study algebra in eighth grade. What we learn from Loveless is that putting a bunch more students into courses labeled Algebra I, whether it’s in eighth grade, fifth grade, or tenth grade, doesn’t per se mean they’ll learn algebra there. The argument worth having is whether the forthcoming Common Core assessments will adequately gauge whether they have learned algebra, as the standards themselves certainly expect them to do.

A separate argument worth having, but not here, is whether Algebra II (“advanced algebra,” in my day) is truly essential for college and workforce preparation. (It’s definitely essential for any reasonable version of “college math” and certainly for STEM-related courses and jobs.)

SOURCE: Tom Loveless, The Algebra Imperative: Assessing Algebra in a National and International Context (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, September 2013).

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