COMET • Vol. 1, No. 21 – 29 August 2000


(1) “[California] Assembly to Make Algebra Mandatory”

Source: Contra Costa Times – 26 August 2000

California high school students would have to take algebra to graduate beginning in 2004 under a bill passed Friday by the Assembly.

Current state law requires students to take two years of any level of math. However, many school districts and colleges require algebra. The new state high school graduation exam, effective for the class of 2004, is expected to include algebra.

The state Board of Education in 1997 adopted statewide math standards that call for algebra to be taken in the eighth grade. However, those standards are not mandatory for local school districts.

An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of high school graduates never take an algebra course, according to the Education Committee analysis.

The author, Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, says the state should require algebra because it will be part of the graduation test and it is “great training for everyday problem-solving.”

The bill is supported by education groups and the American Electronics Association.

The vote was 62-1. The bill returns to the Senate for a vote on amendments.


The text of the bill discussed above, SB 1354, can be found at the following web site (a portion of the bill is reproduced below):


INTRODUCED BY Senator Poochigian

(Co-authors: Senators Alpert, Karnette, and McPherson) JANUARY 13, 2000

An act to amend Sections 51220 and 51225.3 of the Education Code, relating to algebra…

Under existing law, the adopted course of study for grades 7 to 12, inclusive, is required to offer courses in specified areas of study, including mathematics. Existing law also specifies that graduation from high school requires, among other things, completion of 2 courses in mathematics.

This bill would specify that the adopted course of study for grades 7 to 12, inclusive, include, as part of mathematics instruction, Algebra I. The bill would also specify that commencing with the 2003-04 school year, for high school graduation, at least one or a combination of the 2 required mathematics courses meet or exceed the rigor of content standards for algebra that are adopted by the State Board of Education. The requirements on school districts to ensure that the additional course of study requirements are carried out would impose a state-mandated local program…

(2) “State Looks for a Running Start in Preschool” by Martha Groves

Source: Los Angeles Times – 27 August 2000

Count to 10. Recognize circles, squares and triangles. Read letters in alphabet books. Recite familiar poems.

These are some of the skills that California’s children should practice even before they enter kindergarten, according to new state Department of Education guidelines.

Although the guidelines are optional, the state is strongly urging their use in public and private preschools. They will be sent this fall to all school districts, licensed child-care centers and family child-care providers.

The guidelines indicate how seriously many education experts are taking preschool these days. California’s stringent new academic standards require far more of kindergartners than in the past, and educators say that demands more rigor in preschool.

Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, views the guidelines as a key element of her costly statewide plan to expand good preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“Universal preschool is our nation’s next step to ensuring high quality educational access,” she said in a statement…

Noting that children’s informal mathematical knowledge develops rapidly during the preschool years, the guidelines call on teachers to weave counting and pattern exercises into activities.

Portions of the guidelines will be available by Sept. 1 on the state Department of Education Web site: For more information, call the department at (916) 323-5089.

(3) “Testing Report Details Gains: Data Said To Show ‘Achievement Gap'” by Pamela Martineau

Source: Sacramento Bee – 15 August 2000

California’s low-income and limited-English-speaking students posted modest gains in reading and math on this year’s standardized achievement test, but continued to score well below the national average.

The performance of the state’s poor and non-English speakers was highlighted Monday when the state Department of Education released additional analysis of this year’s Stanford 9 achievement test scores. The report, a follow-up to scores announced last month, separates students’ results by income, English ability, sex and other factors and is envisioned by educators as a way to identify students for whom existing programs might not be working.

“This data shines a spotlight on the state’s achievement gap,” said Joan McRobbie, an analyst with WestEd, a federally funded education research group based in San Francisco. “There are groups of children in California that are not getting the same kind of opportunity that other kids are getting.”

The state requires that students in second through 11th grades be tested in English using a nationally normed test of basic skills…. “Our schools serve a population that is extremely diverse,” said state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin. “Not surprisingly, the (test) results show it is difficult for students to do well in academic content areas until they are proficient in English”…

Test results also showed that female students generally scored higher than males, except in science and history/social science.

This is the third year of the Stanford 9 achievement test in California. It is given each spring and is a key element of education reforms passed by the state Legislature….

Complete test results will be available on the Internet beginning at 10 a.m. today at



(1) “New Report: U.S. Students Improve in Math, but Need Work on Reading”

Source: – 24 August 2000

Many students perform better today in mathematics, but they’ve shown little improvement in reading, data released Thursday from the U.S. Department of Education show.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, which has been tracking academic performance for 30 years, focused on students ages 9, 13, and 17 — the fourth, eighth and 12th grades. The latest data cover 1999, when roughly 48,000 students were tested.

Noting the improvements in mathematics, Education Secretary Richard Riley heralded the latest study. “The results may surprise a few cynics,” Riley said. “Today’s students are doing better.”

In 1999, student achievement in mathematics was higher than ever before among all age groups, a trend the report’s authors attributed to more students taking advanced math courses. “It is clear that students excel when they are challenged,” said Riley…

Reading scores in 1999, however, were not as positive. The report showed no improvement for 17-year-olds, some improvement for 13-year-olds and only long-term improvement for 9-year-olds…

There was little improvement in science as well, with the only modest academic gain seen among 9-year-olds..

Black students’ scores remained below those of white students in mathematics, but showed greater gains — narrowing the gap in each age group over the last three decades…

Hispanic students, however, have not significantly narrowed the academic gap with white students except in mathematics and in reading among 17-year-olds.

When performance was broken down by gender, female students of all ages had higher reading scores than males, and the math score gap that once favored males disappeared.

Male students, however, still outperform female students in science at ages 13 and 17.

Riley said the results underscore what educators have learned about helping students over the past 30 years. He urged Congress to support a “federal education budget that includes investments in smaller classes, up-to-date schools, effective preschool programs, strong after-school programs and well-trained teachers.”

(2) “Don’t Ask A Mathematician to Define the Hook Of Three Bang” by Tara Bahrampour

Source: New York Times – 23 August 2000

He wouldn’t know what you were talking about, unless he had happened upon the Advanced Placement BC calculus class that Sue Steckel taught last school year. Even so, he would have had to decipher, through the students’ laughter, the nicknames they invented for the symbols and concepts of calculus.

Giggling, covering her face as if to hide from a heresy, Ms. Steckel recalled: “I tried to tell them over and over, ‘If you talk like this to another mathematician, he’s going to laugh at you.’ They’d say: ‘We don’t care, it’s our thing. It’s our in-joke.’ ”

Those insider names for the indefinite integral (which looks like a hook) and the factorial symbol (a bang-like exclamation point) were part of a distinctive strategy students developed to handle one of the most difficult high school courses: Advanced Placement BC Calculus, the harder of two advanced placement calculus courses. In the rare schools that offer it, it is avoided by all but the most fearless in math.

Yet this past year, at Manhattan’s Friends Seminary, a private high school on East 16th Street, a group of four juniors and six seniors transformed themselves into a team whose closeness became the key to their success. They were not math nerds, their teacher insisted….But, displaying teamwork and camaraderie unusual even in this close-knit Quaker-run school, the class wrote calculus songs, acted out calculus game shows, exchanged nightly phone calls and e-mail messages, and cheered one another on so heartily that failure became impossible.

At year’s end, not only did all of them pass the nationally administered advanced placement exam, but all earned 5’s, the highest score possible on the exam. It was the first time in the school’s history that an entire class of so many students had received 5’s. Last year, only 38 percent of 30,000 students in the nation who took the test earned a 5…

Ted Sizer, former headmaster of Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., and a leader of the Coalition of Central Schools, a school reform movement, said successes like Ms. Steckel’s class point to the importance of small classes that emphasize teamwork. “Most schools, strangely enough, work the opposite of how the real world operates,” he said. “Very little serious scientific research is ever done by one person all alone, not talking to anyone. It’s much more common to help each other and feed off one another.”

“Serious kidding around” is another key to success, Mr. Sizer added, noting that “when things are fun, you pay attention.” …

Even errors were respected. “No one was going around making stupid mistakes,” said Jenny Rothchild, one of two girls in the class. “When somebody made a mistake, everyone was like, ‘Oh, what a good mistake.’ And when we finished a really hard problem, Daniel Terry would go, ‘That was good, we should clap for that problem'”…

Like an expedition, the class adhered to a strict schedule. “If you didn’t learn this chapter one night, you’d have to do two chapters the next night,” Miss Rothchild said. “You’d blow off another class’s work, but there was no question of blowing off calculus.”

No one remembers whose idea it was, but early in the year, without prompting, the class split into three study groups. Students said that greatly eased the pressure, hanging successes and failures on the teams rather than on individuals.

The nicknames were also spontaneous. Looking back, Ms. Steckel said, it made sense that the students would attach affectionate terms to math concepts. “All that is a way of making light of something that’s really hard,” she said. “It’s giving them ownership of it.”

Ms. Steckel was never lenient, but “I felt no great need to run everything,” she said. “They were smart enough and old enough to help run the class. Trust the kid, and the kid is going to take more initiative” …

“When they said, ‘Why should we hire you right out of school?’ Steckel said, ‘Because I think calculus is the neatest thing I have ever seen,’ ” she said. “I think it is so cool, I talk about it at parties. I think it is like magic.”

That attitude played well with her students, as did Ms. Steckel’s use of material from eight different textbooks and her frequent consultations with teachers at other schools.

But she gave a lot of credit to the students for the success of the course. She said they found a real pleasure in being together, and funneled it into their work. Friends from outside the class looked at them blankly when they told calculus jokes, but they didn’t care, she said. “Some of it’s about being willing to take a risk,” she said.

Mr. Arnold said that while the results were exceptional, the classroom dynamics did not surprise him in a school that emphasizes Quaker values of noncompetitiveness and openness and is regarded as among Manhattan’s dozen finest private schools.

In fact, during the national exam, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service, one student burst out laughing when a problem reminded him of a class joke. And meeting together three months later, students and teacher still chuckled about obscure references to “Jenny’s closet of numbers” (a term they invented to help visualize different kinds of infinities) or “an ant of negligible height” (which they used when describing an angle of elevation viewed from ground level)…

(3) “Report Finds State Education Reforms Boosting Students’ Test Scores”

Source: – 25 July 2000

A new report on education says state policies and school reforms are key to improving students’ scores, regardless of the economic status of the students.

According to RAND, a California-based think tank, states that reduce class sizes, enroll more children in public preschool, give teachers more classroom materials and target additional money to poor children are improving the lot of all students.

Among the findings, math scores across the country are on the rise, averaging an increase of 1 percentile point per year. It may not sound like much, but that pace is far better than any time in the past two years.

“It does look to us that there is evidence that the reform initiatives across the states are working to increase achievement at least in some states,” said David Grissmer, the study’s lead author…

The study, released Tuesday, found the tide is not rising equally in classrooms across the nation. Texas, and North Carolina, as well as Michigan, Indiana and Maryland, show gains twice the national average. Other states, including Wyoming, Georgia, Delaware and Utah, show only minute improvement or no improvement at all.

Texas schoolchildren — regardless of how much money their parents make or what race they are — are likely to do better than counterparts in other states, the researchers concluded. California children had the lowest scores in the several socio-economic categories examined by RAND…

The three-year study examined math and reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given between 1990 and 1996. It ranked the 44 states that participate in the voluntary national test program by average test scores, by average score improvement and by directly comparing scores of students with similar race and socio-economic backgrounds…

The study was funded by ExxonMobil’s education foundation, the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation, as well as divisions of the Education Department and RAND itself.

Researchers used specific categories to see how well each state is educating children regardless of background. For example, on the 1996 math test of fourth-graders, black students in Texas ranked first when compared with blacks in other states; Hispanic students in Texas ranked fifth. Meanwhile, California’s black students ranked last, and California’s Hispanic students ranked fourth from the bottom.

State education policies were then examined, Grissmer said. Texas and other states were determined to be successful because they were most likely to have lowered pupil-teacher ratios, enrolled more children in public preschool and have given teachers more materials for classrooms, he said.

But Doug Stone, a spokesman for California’s Department of Education, said the early 1990s data used in the RAND study don’t reflect the state’s most recent increases in education spending, teacher hiring and academic standards for students. “The seeds of improvement were planted just a few years ago,” Stone said, adding that elementary and middle school children made double-digit gains in math scores this year on the widely used Stanford 9 standardized test…

Interest in measuring states has grown in recent years and comes at a time when governors are not only taking the lead in education, but benefiting politically when students do measure up.

Republican presidential candidate Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has continually touted the gains of more than 4 million Texas public schoolchildren as he campaigns for the White House…While Texas came out on top when it came to most improved test scores, it still ranks 27th in the nation when it comes to student test performance. And most of the improved test scores date to before Bush was elected governor. [See “Bush’s Education Record” by Bob Herbert in the New York Times :]

Bush’s … Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, has proposed spending about $115 billion on universal preschool, creating smaller classes and other initiatives. Gore’s campaign said the findings of the RAND study show that he has the right priorities to help improve public schools.

What did not necessarily help children’s scores, the RAND study said, was simply having teachers who were highly paid or with advanced degrees. “The current system rewards experience and education — but neither seems to be strongly related to producing higher achievement,” the report said.

The report contends that the national, voluntary testing program, in which states select a representative sample of schoolchildren to take the tests, is currently the best way to compare states — the main architects of U.S. education policy: “Having 50 states take different approaches to education can provide a powerful advantage in the long run if research and evaluation can identify what works and what does not,” the study said.


POSTSCRIPT–In memory of Susan Loucks-Horsley

Dr. Glen Harvey, CEO of WestEd, shared the following:

On July 28, Susan Loucks-Horsley fell on a flight of stairs at work and sustained serious head injuries from which she never recovered. [She died on August 8.] She was known throughout the United States and Europe for her pioneering research and development work in education change, professional development, and science and mathematics education.

At the time of her death, Susan was Associate Executive Director at Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She remained a Senior Research Associate at WestEd, based in our Tucson office, after joining BSCS late last year.

In recent years Susan served as the Director of the Professional Development Project at the National Institute for Science Education and was senior author of the book emerging from that project: Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, published in 1998. Until last year, she had co-directed, with Steve Schneider, WestEd’s Science and Mathematics program for four years.

Previously, she was the Director of Professional Development and Outreach at the National Research Council’s Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (1996-99). Her work at the NRC included promoting, supporting, and monitoring the progress of standards-based education, especially the National Science Education Standards…

One of her final gifts was to remind us how much friendships matter. Life is fragile, often far too short. We must always be sure to take time to care for and about one another…


A service commemorating the life of Susan Loucks-Horsley will be held Saturday, September 16, starting at 4 p.m. (MST) at the Unitarian Universalist church, 4831 East 22nd Street, Tucson, Arizona. A reception will follow the service. For further information, please contact the Tucson office of WestEd, 520/888-2838.

A permanent Memorial Fund has been instituted in Susan’s name. The purpose of the new Susan Loucks-Horsley Fund for Educational Change is to benefit children and educational systems by supporting the work of educators pursuing innovative developments in (1) science, mathematics, and technology education, (2) professional development, (3) educational change, and (4) leadership.

It is intended that the Fund support grants to individuals or groups of educators pursuing innovative work in one or more of these four areas of specialty. National in scope, the Fund has been established at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona (CFSA), an Arizona nonprofit corporation. Contributions to this Fund will be tax-exempt re: CFSA’s status under Section 509(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.

Contributions should be made to:

The Susan Loucks-Horsley Fund for Educational Change
c/o Community Foundation for Southern Arizona
6601 East Grant Road, Suite 111
Tucson AZ 85715


COMET is an online newsletter that seeks to provide timely information in a digest format about state (California) and national news, articles, events, opportunities, and web resources related to mathematics education. Information from a variety of print and online sources is compiled and distributed via COMET approximately once a week during the regular academic year. The target audience includes California PreK-12 teachers of mathematics and school/district administrators, as well as university faculty throughout the nation who are interested in issues related to mathematics education (with a focus on California news).