As we approach the Common Core alignment date, a debate over the Algebra 2 requirement is brewing. Some lawmakers and education professionals alike feel that requiring students to complete Algebra 2 prior to graduation is likely to create undue angst and potentially increase the student drop-out rate. Opponents of the Algebra 2 requirement site the completion of that level of mathematics theory is unnecessary for students who do not intend to pursue a college education and that enacting such a broad reaching requirement would potentially alienate a large segment of the student population.
On the other hand, proponents of the Algebra 2 requirement feel that it is a disservice to not require the class. Regardless of whether a student is college bound or career bound, the class provides crucial mathematics fundamentals that will be valuable for those career bound and college bound.
Nationwide, the Algebra 2 debate is ongoing with little consensus between states. Some states require the completion of Algebra 2, some states offer an opt-out option for certain students, and other states do not require its completion for successful graduation from high school.
So, Should all students take Algebra 2?
Florida seemed to say “no” this spring with the passage of a law striking it from graduation requirements. Texas said much the same in legislation Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed this week that also backs away from Algebra 2 for all.
Those steps come as the Common Core State Standards for math set the expectation that all students should meet learning objectives at what’s generally considered the Algebra 2 level.
The new standards would represent a big shift. About one-quarter of high school students never take the course (or its equivalent), based on recent federal data. Also, some math educators say their Algebra 2 courses are about to get tougher as they align with the common core.
Success in Algebra 2 is often touted as a critical gateway to college and career readiness, but some question that view.
During Florida’s legislative debate, state Sen. Aaron Bean said some students, if they’re not college bound, don’t need the course for a good career. And he fears that mandating it is a recipe for a higher dropout rate.
Not all students should have to “climb Mount Algebra 2,” the Republican declared.
But other states have moved in the opposite direction from Florida, by adopting and recently starting to implement an Algebra 2 requirement, including Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.
Even so, fewer than half of states have such a requirement. And some of those states have an “opt out” provision for families.
Not all Algebra 2 courses, of course, are created equal. Although experts say there are some basic topics typically included, the content and rigor may vary widely.
“There is not now and hasn’t ever been a consistent definition of Algebra 2, not when you look closely at it,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that helped develop the common core and has long advocated that all students complete Algebra 2 or its equivalent. “The label, in some sense, is the wrong thing to focus on.”
Indeed, Mr. Cohen said he hopes the standards foster more creativity in reimagining Algebra 2 and other high school math courses to better engage students, including through career and technical education that brings the subject to life.
“You really don’t have to just do it in a traditional sequence,” he said.
Building a Ramp
At the high school level, the common core does not call for any specific courses. Rather, it identifies the content and skills students should master by the time they graduate, including in such domains as algebra, geometry, and probability and statistics. (It also contains more advanced, or “plus,” standards for students who plan to pursue a STEM major in college.)
However, a common-core appendix suggests several model pathways, including the traditional Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2 sequence, as well as integrated courses it dubs Mathematics 1, 2, and 3. The appendix details key content students might tackle in those courses.
Across K-12, the common core —adopted by nearly all states, including Florida—also has standards for math practice, including reasoning, solving problems, and modeling.
William McCallum, a math professor at the University of Arizona who was a lead writer on the math standards, said the more advanced algebra in the common core will likely be difficult for some students to master. In fact, some students “just hit a wall at algebra, period,” he said.
But the common core, Mr. McCallum said, is carefully designed and sequenced over time to prepare students to succeed with all the algebra in the standards, beginning in kindergarten.
“We’ve tried to build a ramp up to that wall,” he said. “There is this whole domain called operations and algebraic thinking, which tries to think about arithmetic as a rehearsal for algebra.”
An appendix to the Common Core State Standards in mathematics outlines “model pathways” for high school coursetaking, including one that features Algebra 1, geometry, and Algebra 2, and another with integrated courses that combine math, geometry, and other topics. Among the content the appendix suggests for an Algebra 2 course:
PERFORM arithmetic operations with complex numbers.
USE complex numbers in polynomial identities and equations.
INTERPRET the structure of expressions (polynomial and rational).
UNDERSTAND the relationship between zeros and factors of polynomials.
CREATE equations that describe numbers or relationships.
UNDERSTAND solving equations as a process of reasoning and explain the reasoning.
ANALYZE functions using different representations.
BUILD a function that models a relationship between two quantities.
CONSTRUCT and compare linear, quadratic, and exponential models and solve problems.
PROVE and apply trigonometric identities.
Jennifer Barrett, a math curriculum consultant for the 14,500-student Kenton County schools in Kentucky, said her district and state already require students to complete Algebra 2, but said it will be a “heavy lift” to adjust to the new expectations for all students.
“Algebra 2 at the level of the common core … is a different beast,” she said. “It’s almost like Algebra 2 is Algebra 2 plus a good portion of what precalculus has been in the past.”
Cliff Bara, who teaches math and science at Troy Junior and Senior High School in Troy, Mont., echoed that point. “Some of the stuff they have to do with polynomials—the remainder and factor theorems, rational roots theorem, using polynomial identities—these are not things we have normally done in Algebra 2 class,” he said.
While Algebra 2 can benefit all students, he would stop short of requiring it. “To actually say every kid in my state is going to complete Algebra 2, I think that’s setting some folks up for disaster. There is a subset of students for whom that is either an unreasonable expectation or it’s just not necessary.”