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Nationwide Enrollment in Algebra 1 Rises, While Misplaced Students Struggle

By Aimee Scribner - September 26, 2008

The Brookings Institute’s Brown Center on Education released a study this week indicating that while more students than ever may be taking algebra in eighth grade, they aren’t necessarily learning more.

The new study finds that the nation’s push to challenge students by placing them in advanced math classes in eighth grade has yielded some unintended consequences, as some 120,000 middle-schoolers are now struggling in advanced classes for which they are unprepared.

Tom Loveless, the Brown Center’s director and author of the new study, tackles the question of whether or not greater equity and future opportunities for students require broader, earlier access to algebra.

For this study, the Institute gained access to rarely used research data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which allowed investigators to drill down and examine student-level information on a nationally representative sample of 160,000 eighth graders.

Between 2000 and 2005, as enrollment in advanced math classes rose among eighth-graders (and enrollment in basic math simultaneously declined), there was a significant jump in the percentage of very low-scoring students in advanced courses.

Among students in the bottom 10 percent nationally on the NAEP math test, enrollment in advanced math classes rose from 8.0 percent in 2000 to 28.6 percent in 2005.

During the same period, students ranking academically in the 10th percentile and below more than doubled as a proportion to those in advanced classes.

The study also gives detailed information about these misplaced students. The study finds that they are:

  • Disproportionately black and Hispanic
  • Have parents whose own education is below the national average
  • Come from low-income households
  • Attend large urban schools with predominately low socioeconomic status populations
  • Have math teachers with less experience and mathematics training than the typical teacher of advanced math students in eighth grade.

All of these finding are particularly pertinent to California, since our State Board of Education (acting in July) adopted algebra 1 as the standard for eighth grade students.

The Brookings study recommends that a more realistic algebra policy be created, from early intervention and teaching of basic skills to new research that tests the effectiveness of different approaches to math remediation.

The report concludes that “the push for universal eighth grade algebra is creating more problems than it solves.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has made a similar argument with the introduction of his California Algebra 1 Success Initiative.  He continues to stress to the State Board members, the Legislature, and Governor Schwarzenegger that California must provide funding to support students and teachers as they rise to the challenge of algebra 1 as the new eighth grade standard.

O’Connell maintains the state needs to spend about $3 billion each year for smaller math classes, additional class time, more school counseling services, teacher recruitment and training, and expanded after school and summer programs.

Tom Loveless of the Brown Center emphasized that “This is not a call to lower expectations for what students can learn.  Instead we have to give more students the preparation they need to succeed in algebra.  That won’t be achieved by designating an arbitrary grade (level) in which all students are swept into an algebra course, then turning a blind eye to the troubling results.”

The debate in California continues, and this new study is sure to add fuel to the fire for the many stakeholders affected by the algebra 1 standard for the state’s eighth graders.

Editor's Note: Aimee Scribner  is the Senior Legislative Coordinator for Governmental Solutions Group, LLC .  She is a former consultant to the Assembly Education Committee and a former teacher.