California has made great strides toward teaching algebra in the eighth grade. Six years ago, fewer than a third of eighth-graders took the course that's considered the linchpin to college-prep mathematics. Now, more than half do.

But the state is caught between the rigid mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act and its own lofty academic ambitions. The federal act requires the state's proficiency exams to test whatever the standard is, and the state'sstandard is for all eight-graders to take algebra. What to do about the 48% who take lower-level math?

The answer to be considered by the state Board of Education this week is to give those students a new, tougher test with a sprinkling of algebra questions, while algebra students would continue to take the full algebra test. That makes the feds happy. That makes the state Department of Education happy. The only problem is that this is unsound education.

Though we support standardized testing as a way to measure the progress of schools, testing students on material they haven't learned is the educational tail wagging the dog. Teachers will throw a few simple algebra concepts into a curriculum in which they make no sense in the hopes of a better score; it's the proverbial "teaching to the test" in its worst form.

The state already has inducements in place to prod schools toward eighth-grade algebra, which has led to the progress so far. But the eighth-grade algebra standard is not a requirement, and though there's a movement afoot to make it one, that would be a mistake. Math demands progressively sophisticated skills. Students have to master Step 1 before they can successfully attempt Step 2, and the public schools have long allowed students to move on to the next step while they're still shaky on the previous one. That's why algebra remains the single biggest obstacle to high school graduation.

The problem begins long before middle school; in fact, one of the major factors is failure to master multiplication tables. The state needs to think out its curriculum before it starts testing students on it.

California has adopted materials for an algebra-readiness course for middle schools, but it will be years before the curriculum is fully in place. Let's not lose sight of the real goal here, which is to ensure that students learn math -- not just take it, or pass it, but actually learn it. Better for lagging students to be prepared properly for algebra in ninth grade than for them to take it early, only to fail, and fail again.

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