Though the subject is not currently required for high-school graduation here, it is a prerequisite for entrance to both of the state's four-year public university systems.
Next week, Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly will present new data on student performance in Algebra 2 and some "preliminary thoughts" on how graduation requirements could be reformed.
Math is only one of several areas in which Palo Alto graduation criteria are not consistent with CSU/UC entrance requirements.
Palo Alto also falls short of CSU/UC entrance criteria in foreign language.
On the other hand, the district exceeds the four-year public college requirements in social studies, career-technical education, physical education and living skills.
A solid majority of Palo Alto students — 80 percent of the Class of 2011 — meet or surpass the CSU/UC requirements by the time they graduate.
But consistently, about 20 percent — disproportionately African-American and Hispanic — fall short. Out of concern for those students, the Board of Education highlighted the issue in its 2008 strategic plan, setting a goal of higher completion rates of the CSU/UC criteria, the so-called "A-G requirements."
The Parent Network for Students of Color and the Student Equity Action Network have advocated "A-G for all" as a way of boosting expectations for minority students.
Last spring, Skelly asked the Board of Education to take steps toward aligning graduation requirements with CSU/UC criteria.
By boosting math and language graduation requirements, Palo Alto could "formally acknowledge and strengthen its commitment toward eliminating the achievement gap," the district's Director of Secondary Education Debbra Lindo said at the time.
The recommendation sparked an outcry from special-education parents, however, who worried their children could have difficulty graduating under the new requirements. The board tabled it pending further research on the reasons students fail to fulfill the A-G requirements. Lindo has since left Palo Alto to become superintendent of the Emery Unified School District.
But the issue has not gone away.
Skelly returned to the board last fall with information on the types of students who fail to meet the four-year college requirements. He is expected to present more data — on the Class of 2012 — at next Tuesday's board meeting. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the board room of school district headquarters (25 Churchill Ave.).
In October Skelly's research director, Diana Wilmot, reported that more than 60 percent of students failing to meet the CSU/UC requirements are white or Asian. However, a higher-than-expected proportion are African-American and Hispanic.
English and math are where students have the most difficulty, Wilmot said, adding that many don't give up easily and still are trying as late as senior year to complete Algebra 2 or Geometry and make up English credits.
In many cases there were early signs of struggle. About half of the 170 members of the Class of 2011 who failed to complete A-G had scored "below proficient" in standardized tests in elementary school, Wilmot said.
In the end, 90 percent of the Paly and Gunn classes of 2011 went on to college, 80 percent to four-year colleges, Wilmot reported. She noted that many private four-year colleges have lower entrance criteria than CSU/UC.
For graduation, Palo Alto currently requires 20 units of math, including "one year of algebra or its equivalent." By contrast, CSU/UC wants 30 units of math, including "Algebra 1 or equivalent, Geometry and Algebra 2."
In foreign language, now called "world languages," Palo Alto has no requirement while CSU/UC want 20 credits, or two years.
Palo Alto exceeds CSU/UC criteria in social studies, demanding 40 credits — four years — in contrast to CSU/UC's 20 credits.
Palo Alto also requires 20 units of physical education, 10 units of career-technical education and 5 units of living skills. Those courses are not required for CSU/UC entrance but are mandated by state legislation for every student in California.