November 07, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

At the front of the room is one of math teacher Katrina Comp's baggy pants-wearing, sneaker-shuffling students.

Following the shouted instructions of his classmates, he walks forward, then backward, then faster, then slower -- his every movement graphed electronically on the overhead projector screen behind him. He is a living, breathing human graph -- and suddenly the three days of lessons about algebraic functions and slopes click, and these Eastern Technical High School ninth-graders understand what Comp has been driving at.

This is Algebra 1, the course every Maryland public high school student soon will have to master to earn a diploma; the course educators call a gateway to all others in math, science and technology; the course that often determines who will achieve in school and who will not.

"If kids struggle with algebra, nine times out of 10 they're not going to be successful in other courses," says Comp, in her first year at the school in Essex, her seventh as a teacher in Baltimore County. "Everything kind of relies on the algebra skills."

A state High School Assessment test in algebra is on its way to becoming a graduation requirement -- as it stands now, the Class of 2007 is to be the first to face it, and those students will be ninth-graders taking algebra in two years. School systems are racing to find ways to ensure that their students and teachers will be ready.

Lower-level courses such as consumer math are being phased out. Discussions about forcing students to take summer school if they don't have pre-algebra skills are taking place. Some students are being enrolled in a double dose of algebra.

Where once high school students could graduate with just one credit of simple math, algebra is now considered one of the basics.

"We absolutely do not tolerate `I cannot read,' " said Donna M. Watts, the state's math specialist. "We have to feel the same way about math."

If the test were given today, the results could be ugly. Baltimore County, for one, has designed a final exam that officials think mirrors what students will see in the algebra HSA. During the 1999-2000 school year, 56 percent of students who took the exam passed; that went up to 63 percent last year but is still not a passing mark.

"Kids don't do as well as we'd like to on them," said Penny Booth, the county school system's coordinator of mathematics. "But the other piece is that all students are given algebra for the most part. We didn't have aspirations like that years ago."

Some fear that requiring Algebra 1 is a set-up for failure.

"It's very difficult for students who do not have a certain skill level to be successful in algebra," said Jim McLean, chairman of the math department at Dundalk High School. "It would be like me weighing close to 300 pounds and being asked to jump over an 8-foot-high bar. I could practice a lot, but I'd be hard-pressed to get over it.

"In my opinion, at this time, a lot of kids are going to be left behind."

In the 1980s, when the state introduced the Maryland Functional Tests -- exams in math, reading and writing that are set at a sixth-grade level and are now required for graduation -- similar fears were voiced.

"Now people look at that, and they'd be embarrassed if they said `I can't do 12 plus 23,' " Watts said.

That fear is what drove schools in Baltimore County to change the way they look at math. To graduate from high school in Maryland, a student needs three math credits -- but there is no rule for what those credits must be, and watered-down courses such as algebraic and geometric topics count the same as calculus.

Four years ago, Pikesville Middle School, copying an idea in Montgomery County, created an algebra course in which three times a week, students receive a second period of lessons. Other schools expanded on that, and now a majority of high schools offer a double dose of algebra every day, a program called "Algebra with Assistance."

It provides more time to understand the concepts of algebra, a subject marked by critical thinking and methods of analyzing data. It also allows time to address what many educators say is the underlying problem: Students don't enter high school with a strong foundation in basic computation skills like handling fractions, decimals and percentages.

"It's crunching numbers they struggle with," said Comp, the algebra teacher.

"Kids have gaps in basic arithmetic," echoed Kim Stephanic, principal of Dundalk High, which has found success offering extra periods of algebra. The students who get the added help, she said, are scoring better than those who take one period, even though those students have been identified as higher performers.