The Algebra Problem

The algebra problem revolves around two issues having to do with early enrollment of students in advanced math courses.  The first issue is the push to enroll increasing numbers of eighth grade students in Algebra I.  The second issue is the push to require all students to take Algebra II in order to graduate.  This article provides information about the first issue and does not address the second one.

The Importance of Algebra

Algebra is an important subject to study in school for many reasons.  It develops problem solving and critical thinking skills.  It helps develop the ability for abstract thinking.  Concepts and skills developed in Algebra establish the foundation for the study of more advanced mathematics and science.  Success with Algebra leads to students having greater college and career options.

Algebra is important and is essential for students planning to go to college.  The minimum admission standards for four-year institutions in Washington State require 3 credits of mathematics: Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II (intermediate algebra), or Integrated Math I, II, and III.

Algebra I Enrollment on the increase

The National Mathemathics Advisory Panel (NMAP) report says “All school districts should ensure that all prepared students have access to an authentic algebra course—and should prepare more students than at present to enroll in such a course by Grade 8.”  NMAP indicates students must be prepared for this course.  It is important to note NMAP said all prepared students, not all students.  NMAP also said more students should be prepared to enroll in an authentic algebra course by Grade 8.  It did not say or recommend that all eighth grade students be enrolled in an algebra course.

In The Misplaced Math Student:  Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra, Tom Loveless indicates eighth grade enrollment in Algebra I and other advance math classes has increased while there has been a decline in basic math class enrollment between 2000 and 2005.  He also indicates that in 1990, only about one in six eighth grade students were enrolled in an algebra course.

The enrollment of eighth grade students in Algebra I courses has increased.  Are those students adequately prepared to be successful in an Algebra I course?  Should all eighth grade students be enrolled in an Algebra course?

Algebra for All in Eighth Grade is Not a Solution

Some school districts are requiring all eighth grade students to be enrolled in an Algebra I course.  Other school districts are contemplating making this a requirement.  Why is this decision made?  Is it because all students are adequately prepared to be successful in Algebra I?  Have the results of placement exams indicated Algebra I is the proper math placement for every eighth grade student in the district?  Who makes the decision to enroll all eighth grade students in Algebra I?  Was it the teachers?  If you live in a district with this requirement, these are good questions to ask.  If your district does not have this requirement, you should be ever vigilant about monitoring their plans.

Decisions requiring all eighth grade students to be enrolled in an Algebra I class is usually a top down decision not truly involving teacher input.  Sometimes the decision is made in the interest of equity and social justice rather than evidence of effectiveness.  Even without benefit of a placement exam a seventh grade math teacher could identify those students who are adequately prepared and those who are not prepared for Algebra I.

It is highly unlikely all eighth grade students are adequately prepared for Algebra I.  Some eighth grade students function as low as second grade level and are deficient in their facility with whole numbers and fractions, both critical foundations for Algebra.  An appropriate placement exam would identify students needing more preparation before being enrolled in Algebra I.

The increase of low functioning and struggling math students being enrolled in Algebra has an impact on the quality and rigor of instruction high achieving students receive.  Not only are ill prepared students lost in a course too advanced for their skills, well prepared students lose an opportunity to advance their skills as teachers work addressing remedial needs of struggling students.  It ends up being a lose-lose situation with the potential, and reality in some cases, for Algebra classes to be watered down.  This is a reality in some cases where eighth grade students are enrolled in non-authentic Algebra classes and have to take an authentic Algebra class the following year in ninth grade.

While it may be true that students who pass Algebra I in grade 8 or 9 have more academic and career options, what options does the unprepared student prematurely placed in an Algebra I class have?  Does placing all eighth grade students in Algebra I contribute to the dropout rate?  Does it close or expand the achievement gap?

The California Experience and Findings

California has encouraged, possibly pressured, schools to enroll more eighth grade students in Algebra I.  As a result, some school place all eighth grade students in Algebra I classes while other schools rely on placement exams to help determine appropriate student math placements.  This experience in California provides a wealth of data and findings that other states, Washington included, would be served well to pay heed.

Needed:  Careful evaluation of Algebra I placements in grade 8 presents information from an analysis of longitudinal test data.  Here are some of the findings and conclusions from the analysis.

  • A strong foundation from earlier grades matters for success in Algebra I.
  • Districts and schools should carefully evaluate their placement of 8th graders in math courses, with student preparation being one important consideration.
  • Placement in Algebra I in grade 8 for the state’s most prepared students appears to have served them well.
  • However, a “one size fits all” approach of placing all 8th graders into Algebra I, regardless of their preparation, sets up many students to fail—even though their prospects could be predicted based on their prior achievement.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to 8th grade math placement is not supported
by our analysis”
Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance
  EdSource Feb. 2011

Algebra Policy in California: Great Expectations and Serious Challenges
EdSource   May 2009

EdSource sees flaw in Algebra for all
John Fensterwald – Educated Guess  2/18/11  Thoughts on Public Education

Foundations for Success.  The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.  U.S. Department of Education, 2008.

Improving Middle Grades Math Performance
A closer look at district and school policies and practices, course placements, and student outcomes in California    EdSource Feb. 2011

Is Grade 8 too early for algebra?
By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer  07/09/2011

Minimum College Admission Standards: An Overview for Students and Parents
Revised 2011  Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board

Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance   EdSource Feb. 2011

The Aftermath of Accelerating Algebra:  Evidence from a District Policy Initiative
Charles T. Clotfelter , Helen F. Ladd , Jacob L. Vigdor, January 12, 2012, Duke University

The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra
Tom Loveless   Sept. 2008  Brown Center on Education Policy

Studies Question Value of Early-Algebra Lessons
Sarah D. Sparks, April 20, 2012,  Education Week

Why It Is Important To Learn Algebra   EdSource May 2009

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