The Proposed California Mathematics Framework Lacks Research Evidence

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K-12 teachers in California are guided by so-called frameworks that describe the academic content and preferred pedagogies and drive the approval of textbooks. While the frameworks’ guidance is, in theory, merely advisory, most teachers and school districts follow them closely, believing they are research-based and closely aligned with state tests they want to look good on. California is in the process of rewriting its Mathematics Framework, which will affect most of the state’s schoolchildren.

When a public document proposes a revolutionary change in the education of some 6 million students, it is reasonable to expect that it will rely on strong evidence. Unfortunately, the proposed California Mathematics Framework, which suggests eliminating Algebra I in grade eight, offers no such evidence.

For over 15 years, until 2014, California’s educational standards were on par with international standards, under which most students would take Algebra I in middle school, typically in grades seven or eight. California once had great success in closing on that goal. The switch to Common Core in 2014 stopped the state’s progress in this area, however, and now, instead of middle-school algebra, the new Mathematics Framework “recommends that all students take the same, rich mathematics courses in K–8.” (Chapter 9, p. 43)

To support this recommendation, the Framework offers evidence from three cases (Chapter 1, p. 16-17): San Francisco Unified (SFUSD), eight unnamed “Bay Area districts,” and a Long Island, New York, school district.

In 2015, SFUSD switched from placing all eighth-graders, whether ready or not, into algebra to placing none, deferring algebra for all until ninth grade. The Framework touts this move as a great success since “the proportion of students failing algebra fell from 40 percent to eight percent.” Unfortunately, this turns out to be a gross misstatement. Here are the facts, based on SFUSD’s own numbers.

In 2014, under the previous system, almost 2,400 eighth-graders were placed in algebra, and almost 700 of them scored a C or below; 650 retook algebra in grade nine in 2015. In 2016, almost 3,000 ninth-grade students were placed in algebra, and almost 1,000 of them scored C or below. How many were required to retake algebra? Only 18. In other words, SFUSD changed its criterion for retaking algebra and declared victory, claiming that the change reflects improved achievement. In reality, only 67 percent of students scored an A or B after the change, compared to 70 percent before. So much for the claimed “improvement.”

SFUSD claims that more students took advanced math courses after the change, yet it refuses to provide any achievement data – whether test scores or end-of-course grades. Taking a course and successfully completing it are not the same things. The only measure California offers these days for high school achievement is the 11th-grade Smarter-Balanced test. It shows that the number of SFUSD students achieving proficiency in math declined after the change (in 2018, when these students reached grade 11) by 5 percent overall. The decline was spread across all demographics except African-Americans, who improved by a tiny 2 percent. English-language learners were hurt particularly, with their proficiency dropping by almost half, from 29 to 17 percent.

The other California case concerns unnamed Bay Area districts. Students in a non-algebra eighth-grade class, the Framework claims, scored some “15 months ahead” of the “previous cohort of students who were mainly in advanced [presumably algebra] classes.” No study of the case was cited, and if you believe that within one year a cohort of ninth-graders picked up a full year of algebra and an additional 15 months of progress (almost two additional school years), I have a Golden Gate Bridge to sell you. I could find no study of this nature in the literature, though six years have passed since the research was supposedly done.

The third study, from Long Island, is genuine and shows impressive results. But it was done in a small suburban district that allocated generous resources to making this change, has above-average students, and itself acknowledges that the study couldn’t determine the impact on very high and very low achievers. Even worse, in the Long Island study, all eighth-graders were placed in a higher algebra track – contravening the Framework’s suggestion to keep everyone in the lower “Math 8.” In other words, this small study doesn’t apply to California and contradicts the Framework’s rationale.

California’s proposed Mathematics Framework attempts to redirect mathematics education without providing evidence for its controversial ideas. It should be rejected.

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