Elizabeth Weise

What can parents and communities do to create socioeconomically integrated schools?

What’s All This Fuss About Algebra I?

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[Note: This backgrounder was put together by a group of parents  involved in trying to find ways for SFUSD students who want to accelerate their math pace to do so.]

What’s All This Fuss About Algebra I?

Algebra in San Francisco Unified School District schools

From: SFUSD Parent Watch*

Background Information:
For the better part of the last decade, nearly all SFUSD students took Algebra I during their 8th grade year. About 40% of students tested as “proficient” in Algebra I at the end of that year, and about 20% of those students went on to test as proficient in Algebra II at the end of their 10th grade year.
In 2014 the SFUSD Board of Education voted to change the policy on the middle school/high school math sequence. The new polity was implemented in 2015. It had two components:
a) align with the Common Core [CCSS, Common Core State Standards], a nationwide set of learning standards that can be implemented in different ways, and
b) address what the district felt was a relatively low success rate of students taking Algebra I in 8th grade.
As of fall of 2015, Algebra I was no longer offered in middle school; Rather, all 8th graders take CCSS 8, a new course that incorporates many Algebraic concepts, but at a slightly slower pace to allow students ample and deeper review of the concepts. Then, students enroll in Algebra 1 in 9th grade.
Here is the current high school sequence:
  • 9th grade: Algebra 1
  • 10th grade: Geometry
  • 11th grade: Either Algebra 2 OR a “compression course” that combines Algebra II and Precalculus.
  • 12th grade: Only three years of math are required to graduate. Students who want to continue can choose between PreCalculus, AP Statistics, Calculus AB, or Calculus BC, depending on their interest and the courses they have taken in years prior. (NOTE: Calculus AB or BC are considered “honors” courses and both Algebra II and Precalculus must be completed in order to take them)

For many students, the standard SFUSD sequence will work well. However, for those students who might want to major in math, science or engineering in college, this sequence poses some specific problems:

  • The University of California system does not consider the “Compression Class” (Algebra 2/Pre-Calculus combined) to be an honors class; thus, 11th grade students will not get an extra point on their GPA when applying to colleges (as they would if they were in a recognized honors class).
  • The sequence limits the opportunity to take advanced science courses. For example, a student must be taking or have completed Algebra 2 in order to take AP Physics 1. Thus, if a student does not complete Algebra 2 until 11th grade, they do not have enough time to take the full Physics science sequence (AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2 and AP Physics C).
  • The Compression course does not include pre-calculus standards that are needed for Calculus BC (the Calculus course that engineering or physics majors need to take). Here’s a more specific explanation from the Lowell HS Course curriculum page “Not all California State Content Standards will be covered, including 25 “+” standards…. covered in a full Precalculus course. ( +  “Indicates additional mathematics to prepare students for advanced courses” according to the California Mathematics Framework).  Students should plan additional work in addition to this course to prepare for BC Calculus.”
For all students, even those not planning to major in science, engineering or math, the current sequence raises additional concerns:
  • Some educators believe that Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus are two distinct sets of topics that do not lend themselves to being reasonably combined into a single course.
  • Some parents worry that Junior year is already a stressful one for college-bound students, with SAT/ACT testing and adding a compression course to an already intense course load is problematic
  • Many educators/parents believe that those students who show an exceptional proficiency for mathematics (e.g. top 1-5%), regardless of whether they plan to pursue a math/science major in college, may need more challenge during their 8th and 9th grade years than the standard sequence provides.
  • Finally, the new sequence results in a less flexible high school curriculum. Under the old sequence, humanities-focused students who were ready for Algebra I in eighth grade were able to accomplish one of their high school math requirements prior to entering high school, thereby freeing up space in their schedules to pursue rigorous course work in their areas of interest.
Options for Public School Students Who Need/Want an Accelerated Math Sequence
It is important to note that SFUSD’s policy seems to be evolving on this issue. Also, San Francisco appears to be the only school district in California which has chosen this path of only making acceleration possible by doubling up on math in the junior year of high school.
Below are the options as they currently stand in Fall 2016:

Option #1:

If students earn a C or better in a UCOP (University of California Office of the President) accredited Algebra I course AND pass the SFUSD Math Validation Test (MVT), they will be placed in Geometry for their 9th grade year. Students may take Algebra I at the same time as 8th grade CCSS math or during the summer prior to 9th grade. The course must be UCOP accredited.  One course option that was accepted by SFUSD in 2016 is http://www.apexlearning.com/ Their Common Core Algebra 1 is a two-semester course designed to span 36 weeks.  However, students may choose to accelerate the pace.  Each student is assigned a teacher that monitors progress, grades written assignments and written exams, answers questions, and provides support. The cost is $700. Other online high school programs are offered by Stanford and John Hopkins University. Both programs require admissions, their Algebra I courses are UCOP approved.

Students may take the Math Validation Test (MVT) in May of their 8th grade year or in August before their 9th grade year if they would like to enroll in Geometry in 9th grade. Students coming from private schools who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade will also need to take the math validation test.
Option #2:
Take Algebra 1 concurrently with Geometry in 9th grade. Students who would like to do this need to notify their school administrators as early as possible, and ask about the process for arranging this at their individual high school. Each high school varies as to how they handle these requests. At some schools, parents may need to advocate assertively to ensure that administrators are aware of the policy, including possibly seeking written confirmation directly from the head of the district math department. It is important for parents to be aware that the current district policy (passed in June 2016) says “doubling up is not recommended” and “this option is subject to space availability.”


Option #3:
Students can take the compression course during their 11th grade year so that they can enroll in Calculus during their 12th grade year. This would be a standard option within SFUSD’s current math sequence.

Please note that this information was compiled by parents of SFUSD students. This is not an official SFUSD document, and is not meant to replace SFUSD communication on this issue.

District math policy passed in June 2016
District Letter regarding signing up for the MVT in Fall 2016




* This explainer comes from SFUSD Parent Watch, a Yahoo email group

SFUSD Parent Watch Mission: SFUSD is in the process of overhauling curriculum. Busy parents are still coming to understand the impact of these changes. We want to learn more. We want to be sure all SFUSD students will be able to take classes that challenge them and make them competitively eligible for the state’s best schools.

Our objective is that all classes–from Honors AP Calculus BC to pre-Algebra–mirror the socio-ethnic balance of our city, and that there is rigor, dignity and interesting learning at every level.

It can be subscribed to at this address:


Written by Elizabeth Weise

August 19, 2016 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hi Beth, I just identified last week as many options as possible that seem to meet the requirements for the Board Math Placement Policy 6146.1 to take CCSS Algebra 1 from an “accredited institution.” The options I identified included Apex Learning, UC Scout, City College of San Francisco (there’s a bunch of options for summer Algebra 1, but I don’t know if they allow kids to take it). Brent Stephens, head of curriculum for SFUSD, confirmed that these meet the requirements. Yet I have serious reservations about whether online learning (Apex and UC Scout) is a good idea for ANY student for Algebra 1, even the most advanced student, and I’m struggling with whether this is the right option for my kids even though I know that they could easily handle what used to be the normal class progression with Algebra in 8th grade.

    Annette Hurst

    August 22, 2016 at 3:21 pm

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