To Zeke Villalobos, x + y equals nothing but anxiety. He didn't get algebra the first time he took it, and he's having a hard time with it now.
But as a high school senior, the 16-year-old San Juan Capistrano boy has no choice.
A California law passed in 2000 requires all high school students, starting with this year's senior class, to complete Algebra I to graduate. There's no wiggle room; special education students, English learners and those at continuation schools must all pass the class before they get their diplomas.
Lawmakers demanded the requirement after concluding that too many graduates lacked a foundation in math to succeed in the workplace or in higher education. At the time, some detractors protested that many students would not be able to meet the more rigorous standard and schools didn't have enough money to provide additional support.
But schools and students are adjusting, and the results are proving positive.
"I guess I had to be forced to do it, to make the effort to understand," said Zeke, who attends Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo. He is one of 25 students enrolled in an algebra class reserved for seniors who have failed the district's two-year course, and he acknowledges its value. "It's what you need to survive out there and get a job."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Algebra question -- One sample question accompanying an article in Monday's California section about a high school algebra graduation requirement had an incomplete answer. In addition to 73 and 15, another pair of numbers, -43 and -101, also solve the equations described in problem No. 4.
Many educators and lawmakers agree that algebra courses should be available to all students, not just those who are college-bound. For past generations of students, longtime teachers said, algebra was offered sporadically or not at all in low-income and heavily minority communities.
Closing the achievement gap between black and Latino children and their white peers can be done only if all students are held to the same standards, said Merle Price, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Educators applaud the statewide application of the algebra requirement because it is forcing everyone, no matter their academic potential or handicap, to at least perform at the same minimal level when it comes to math.
"Watered-down [expectations] just won't make it in this economy anymore," he said. "The goal here is not to deprive kids of a diploma but to make the diploma meaningful."
In most districts, officials said, just a handful of seniors are at risk of not meeting the algebra requirement. The majority of California students finish algebra before entering high school and most of the others learn algebra in a series of classes that, at some schools, may last up to three years, said Ron Fox, an administrator with the California Department of Education.
For example, Zeke is among fewer than 200 of the 3,000 seniors in the Capistrano Unified School District who need to take algebra this year. The new mandate had largely been ignored in the uproar over the high school exit exam graduation requirement, said educators around the state. The California Board of Education in July voted to postpone the test, originally intended to take effect with this year's seniors, until the class of 2006 because of concerns about low passing rates and a desire to give struggling students more time to learn the test material.
But the algebra requirement "had truly slipped by us," said Lee Kucera, Zeke's math teacher. "Now we're saying, 'Oh my gosh,' and scrambling to get them passed. We want to make sure algebra is not what impedes these kids from getting on with their lives."
Districts may need to pursue a variety of strategies, Kucera said, to ensure that students pass algebra. Those include putting seniors together in one class, team-teaching between special education and regular instructors, and extensive tutoring programs.
"We can't change the standards, and we can't change the requirements," she said. Watching her students complete column after column of fraction review problems on a worksheet, she shrugged. "I'm not 100% convinced algebra is necessary for all students, but that's the law."
The students who are struggling most with algebra are the ones who ultimately will benefit the most by the graduation prerequisite, said Jerry White, director of curriculum for the Huntington Beach Union High School District. Some 10% to 20% of graduating seniors today would never have taken algebra a generation ago, White said. Instead, they would have enrolled in basic courses such as general and business math.
"To say we shouldn't require these skills because there is a certain segment of the population who will never understand these skills is wrong," White said. "Everyone has a right to a basic set of skills."
And students are rising to the algebra call, he said. "A lot are getting over the bar who we didn't think would, in the beginning," he said.
That includes students at Oxnard and Fountain Valley high schools, both of which have piloted programs to help special-ed students pass algebra.