We, frankly, are baffled by Register’s Feb. 22 story “Report: State algebra push hurting many students.” The headline writer did not carefully read reporter Fermin Leal’s article. The article clearly shows that it is not the state push that hurts students, but the indiscriminate and wrong-headed policies in many school districts, where officials chose to place unprepared students in algebra classes to score some imaginary success.

We are gratified to see that the EdSource report, “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better,” released last month and referenced in the Register story acknowledges the huge progress of California eighth-graders in taking algebra. California schools more than doubled the number of eighth-graders scoring proficient or advanced from fewer than 60,000 in 2003 to more than 120,000 in 2009. Even more gratifying is that this success was shared most widely among disadvantaged students, whose numbers of proficient or advanced more than quadrupled in the same period.

Which brings us to a counterproductive federal effort, the most-recent. During summer 2010, the California Academic Standards Commission, of which we were both members, voted (over our objections) to recommend the adoption of the federally promoted national standards. But for California, these national standards posed effectively the same dilemma as had been posed by inflexible federal No Child Left Behind regulation in 2008: Either teach everyone pre-algebra in eighth grade (which is the goal in the national standards), giving up on a decade of progress; or reject the national standards, sticking with California’s goal of Algebra I in eighth grade.

The commission (and later the state Board of Education) tried to grasp both horns of the dilemma, leaving us with a plan that could work only on paper: The newly adopted plan expects teachers to teach and eight-graders to learn in one year both pre-algebra and Algebra I. The emptiness of this double-whammy option is self-evident, and it will tamp down the future mathematical success of California students—disadvantaged students in particular.

Despite the efforts of California policymakers to bring as many students as could handle it up to the math performance-levels of high-performing countries, in these two cases, the rule-making, rule-enforcement, standards-writing and standards-adoption constraints of the federal government sabotaged the steady progress in math achievement of California students.