Debra J. Saunders

Enter the No Child Left Behind bureaucracy. The federal law requires eighth-graders to take a test aligned to the state standards for that grade -- instead of giving one test for the Algebra I students, and a below-grade-level math test for the rest. The choice for state educators: Make all students take the algebra test right away, make all students take a tougher general math test, come up with an alternative test or negotiate a deal to allow the state to give two tests until a given date.

The board was considering a blueprint by state schools chief Jack O'Connell for a tougher general math test. Good. Except that O'Connell's staff also says -- and this is where the fighting starts -- that Algebra I was never an eighth-grade standard. "There's a state desire for all eighth-graders to take algebra, but that is not the official standard," said spokeswoman Hilary McLean. They use the fact that the standard has yet to be met to back up their argument. "They've always wanted a safety valve for the kids who weren't ready yet because the system wasn't ready yet," said Deputy Superintendent Rick Miller.

And if it's not the standard, why bother?

EdVoice policy director Bill Lucia fears that the gains made by African-American and other minority students will vanish. He cited an EdSource report that showed that the proportion of African-American eighth-graders taking Algebra I had nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007. "Notably, the percentage of these students who scored advanced or proficient on the Algebra I (California Standardized Tests) also increased from 17 percent to 20 percent."

Said Lucia, "You threw a bunch of black kids in the algebra class and typically the education establishment would say now you're going to create a problem, because fewer kids are going to pass. But what do you know? More kids are able to take it. More kids are passing, too." To Lucia, this is no time to throw in the towel.

Where's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appoints state school board members? "He doesn't micromanage the board," answered spokeswoman Camille Anderson.

Miller denied that O'Connell wants to eliminate the standard. He told me that there's more information today, so O'Connell simply wants the board, with the input of teachers, principals and superintendents, to have "a good, open, honest conversation" about the eighth-grade Algebra I standard.

Which he also says doesn't exist.

Debra J. Saunders

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