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Rising to the Equation

October 22, 2003

In one of the late Sam Cooke's hit songs, he admitted, "Don't know much about algebra," but sang out his certainty that if he could win his love's attention, "What a wonderful world this would be." If only life were that simple.

Though some high school students stagger along, lost, in their elusive search for the algebraic X, California had good reasons to make algebra a graduation requirement starting this academic year.

Most universities require it. As the basic tool of mathematical problem-solving, it's used in both professions and everyday situations.

Want to figure out whether you can afford the mortgage on your dream house? That's algebra. Figure out the mix of chemicals for the swimming pool? Estimate your taxes?

X might be a medication dosage calculated by a nurse, the amount of fertilizer applied by a farmer. Advertising executives, house painters, machinists, respiratory therapists, fence builders, not to mention engineers, land surveyors and accountants -- they all use algebra.

Even so, some math teachers thought the new requirement impossible and predicted it would rob many students of a diploma. The reality is more heartening. Students are surprising their teachers and themselves, as Times staff writer Claire Luna recently reported. The vast majority of kids who flunked algebra before are getting the hang of it in last-chance classes.

It's not easy for everyone. Administrators have piloted new courses. Teachers have pulled out all the pedagogical stops. And kids are trying as they've never tried before.

"I guess I had to be forced to do it, to make the effort to understand," said Zeke Villalobos, a senior at a Mission Viejo high school.

In other words, kids are smart enough to meet higher goals. "Have to" has a certain magic. It also forces schools to address the reasons why kids flunk algebra. No surprise, it's often because they never mastered basic "numeracy," especially fractions.

The recent focus on algebra already is paying off. The newest scores on California's exit exam find the class of 2005 doing much better than its predecessors. In math, 59% of last year's sophomores passed on the first try. That's nothing to crow about, but the rate is up 15 points from the previous class.

The exit exam won't count until 2006 at the earliest, but algebra is useful with or without it. Zeke wants to be a teacher of U.S. history -- and that means a college degree.

Having lived much of his life in a poor, rural Mexican town, he never got the math basics he needed to take on algebra -- and thus college-level work. No one would have done this young man a favor by handing him a diploma to nowhere. His world will be a lot more wonderful with a solid education.

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