2/18/11 • A report by the non-partisan research organization EdSource is critical of the distinctly California trend of pushing eighth graders to take Algebra I while acknowledging impressive gains over the past decade in the numbers of low-income, minority children who are mastering the subject.
“A ‘one size fits all’ approach of placing all 8th graders into Algebra I, regardless of their preparation, sets up many students to fail,” concludes “Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance.” While 46 percent of eighth graders tested proficient in Algebra I last year (up from 39 percent seven years earlier, even with higher enrollment), 29 percent of students tested far below basic. Many of these students arrived unprepared, and their failure was predictable, given their low scores in the seventh grade math test.
They will be among the 38 percent of students who will repeat Algebra I in ninth grade. The EdSource study didn’t follow what happened to them in ninth grade. But, based on findings by a Noyce Foundation-commissioned study last year, at least half of these students will likely do worse the second time around.
2003: 32% of 8th graders took Algebra I; 39% were proficient
2010: 57% of 8th graders took Algebra I; 46% were proficient
The EdSource report recommends a more nuanced, consistent, districtwide approach to eighth grade math placement. Instead, policies tend vary from school to school. Only a third of districts reported having explicit written placement policies. Superintendents and principals indicated providing a wide access to a rigorous curriculum – equity – was a higher priority for placement than academic appropriateness.
EdSource said that a student’s score on the seventh grade California Standards Test should be a primary, though not sole, factor for placement. Based on that, it concluded that “the nearly 40% of 8th graders who scored low basic or lower in grade 7 are clearly not ready for California’s full Algebra I course in 8th grade.”
Many ended up being assigned to Algebra I just the same. They included 27 percent of students who scored far below basic – a failing grade – on the seventh grade test and a third of students who scored below basic.
An unexpected – and fascinating – finding was that students in low-income schools, with parents who are high school graduates, are more likely to be assigned to Algebra I than students from middle-class schools where parents are college educated. And African American and Hispanic eighth graders were more likely to be placed in Algebra I than were white eighth graders with similar preparation. EdSource doesn’t speculate as to why, though advocates have cast universal Algebra I in eighth grade as a civil rights issue as well as the gateway to a four-year university. However, students could still complete the courses required for admission to a UC or CSU campus after completing Algebra I in ninth grade.
The bigger dilemma is how to place eighth graders who scored high basic or low proficient in seventh grade – and foster their success. Assigning them to General Math is too low a challenge. At the same time, 40 percent of those who scored low proficient in seventh grade ended up scoring basic on Algebra I the next year.
But these are averages. Some districts clearly do a better job with Algebra among the tweeners – the 30 percent of students in the middle – who, with support and encouragement, can succeed. Based on its previous middle school study, EdSource said that those schools that early on identify students who need extra support show better results.
Another promising option is pre-algebra summer school targeting students who scored high basic or low proficient on the seventh grade test. This summer, between 1,000 and 1,200 students from 13 districts in Santa Clara County will take Stepping Up to Algebra, offered by my employer, Silicon Valley Education Foundation, to prepare them for eighth grade. Unfortunately, every county doesn’t have an education foundation to fund summer schools, which have all but vanished because of state budget cuts.
California’s adoption of the Common Core curriculum presents an opportunity to refine the approach to Algebra, EdSource said. The Common Core curriculum for eighth grade includes a bit of geometry and puts off some of the harder elements of Algebra I, such as quadratic equations, to ninth grade. California, in its adoption, also built those back in to create a dense and overloaded set of standards.
One possibility is two eighth grade sequences: one based on the national Common Core standards, with elements of Algebra. For the 40 percent of students now taking General Math, even this would be a stretch, EdSource said. The other would be similar to the current Algebra I. There would be challenges in creating assessments and the right incentives. But in sorting this out, EdSource said, state leaders should “acknowledge that all students deserve math courses that challenge them, but that all students need not follow an identical path and timeline toward college- and work readiness.