EdSource sees flaw in Algebra for all

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.”

** Schools don’t received the results from the CST, taken in April, until August – often after the master schedule is finished – a complication for using it for placement. The State Board should demand a quicker turnaround when the contract comes up for renewal next year.

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About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

16 thoughts on “EdSource sees flaw in Algebra for all

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention EdSource finds flaws in Algebra I for all | Thoughts on Public Education -- Topsy.com

  2. Robert

    I have also seen schools offer Algebra IA as a full year course in 8th grade and Algebra IB as a full year course in 9th grade. Of course, this was in a charter school where there was a clear articulation pattern from middle school to high school, but a well organized district could pull it off. This allows students to get both the Algebra concepts and the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in Algebra simultaneously. It’s not usually the Algebra that trips up students, but the division, multiplication, positive and negative numbers, and fractions students struggle with the most.
    The downside, people will tell you, is that students won’t have completed all of the material for the CST – the vast majority of these students would have gotten far below basic or below basic anyway. Even if students might have scored basic, that’s not good enough to foster success in higher level math where Algebra needs to be as automatic as times tables.
    Taking Algebra I in 8th grade, scoring far below basic and then merely repeating Algebra I again in 9th grade (taught the same exact way) does nothing but reinforce a student’s negative self-perception of themself in math and cause them to continue to fail in it.

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  3. Fred Jones

    I sure enjoy reading studies that prove common sense to be right … and this is just the latest in the last couple of weeks to challenge the elitist notions that every kid needs to be placed on a 4-year, college-bound pathway beginning in middle school.

    There are plenty of ways of teaching real-world relevant mathematics without sticking all students into a decontextualized, largely theoritical Algebra I/II (and Geometry) sequence.  Business Math and several excellent computer-based courses (like Microsoft Excel instruction) provide students plenty of useful math principles that are both engaging and life-long relevant.  Unfortunately, those classes are not UC A-G worthy (since they are “too career oriented” and/or “too technology centered”), and therefore they don’t fit the dominant culture’s game plan for all kids to be ready for UC admissions immediately following high school graduation.  These inspiring courses are being shut-down at historic levels throughout the state as a result of this “one-size-fits-all” fixation.

    Kudos to EdSource pointing out the reality of the fact that the number one way to anticipate whether a kid will fail Algebra I is whether that same kid failed it the first time … let’s stop beating so many students’ heads against the same brick wall, and allow them other means of finding their success in education … more of the same clearly aint workin’.

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  4. Faye Johnson

    I write from a parent’s perspective.  I hope common sense and reason prevail on this issue.  The requirement for all students to be enrolled in Algebra makes no sense at all.
    My children are now in large suburban public high schools.  They attended elementary at a private school close to my place of employment.  The older one, now a junior, suffered for six years from epileptic seizures that made reading and mathematics difficult for her, to say the least.  With patient teachers, excellent outside tutoring, and seizure control, she overcame these problems and now reads and computes proficiently.  Of course, it also had extreme impact on her self confidence for many years.  Had she been forced to take a CST that showed four or five years of below and far below basic (as it surely would have), I’m not sure she would have had the endurance needed to become the proficient student she is today.  She took Algebra I from an exceptional math teacher in the 8th grade and earned a grade of B.  I’m confident she would have scored proficient on the CST had she taken it.  She is completing “a-g” requirements on time and is on track for college acceptance—and success.
    My other daughter, currently a sophomore,  is on track to be a National Merit scholar.  She completed Algebra I in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th with “A’s”.  She completed Algebra II as a freshman and is now completing AP Statistics and Pre-Calculus in the 10th grade with “A’s”.  Her career path is law.  The high school has her enrolled in Calculus next year as a junior.
    A couple of questions:
    1.  How many students like my junior have parents with the resources to supplement school efforts  for four years to prepare their children for Algebra in the 8th grade? (Please don’t say SES because it is largely a joke, she would not have been eligible, and many schools are not in PI.)
    2.  How many high schools are prepared and able to deliver four years of math beyond Algebra I?
    3.  Has anyone considered that middle class parents who know how to navigate the system delay Algebra I for their children to 9th grade, knowing that a four-year college path can still easily be completed?
    4.  Since Calculus seems to have now become the default fourth year math class for college-bound students, how many high schools have sufficient numbers of teachers able to teach this course?
    5.  Has anyone studied the long-term impact on students who receive a state testing report of failure starting in second grade and continuing through several years of elementary school?

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  5. Doug McRae

    John:  Not mentioned in your post is the fact that in 2005 the State Board adopted curriculum frameworks for an Algebra Readiness curriculum for 8th grade (and following grades) students not yet ready for a full Algebra I course, and followed up with approved textbooks for an Algebra Readiness course in 2007.  Unfortunately, the State Board did not allign the STAR assessment system by developing and implementing an Algebra Readiness CST to have an appropriate assessment of students taking the Algebra Readiness curriculum.  From an assessment perspective, the choice is either the Algebra I CST or the weaker General Math test that does not directly target Algebra Readiness content standards. Thus, appropriate curriculum and textbooks and (I think) even professional development were made available, but the sequence was not followed through to the Califorrnia statewide assessment and accountability systems.  Doug McRae, Retired Test Publisher, Monterey, California

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  6. Pablo

    Fred and Faye, how dare you suggest that not every student needs Algebra I! My real estate agent works with negative numbers all the time, my doctor factors polynomials to measure my vitals, my electrician would incinerate my house if he forgot to reverse the inequality symbol after multiplying both sides by a negative number, and my bus driver can’t shift gears without combining like terms. Algebra I is essential to these many other well-paid jobs! What’s more, failing algebra at least once is a civil right.

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  7. Alan Cook

    National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.
    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.
    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.
    A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.
    This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.
    If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our teaching tactics with real life projects.
    Alan Cook



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    1. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess Post author

      Stephanie: I believe the penalty still applies. Those who take General Math are marked down one “grade” for purposes of accountability. So students who score proficient on General Math are credited only for “basic”; those who score “basic” are credited with “below basic” and so on. This disincentive to take General Math may be a factor why schools are assigning more students are taking Algebra. We don’t know. How this will play out with the federal government with regard to reauthorization NCLB is one of the unanswered questions. The feds want every state to offer only one test; the issue remains unresolved but will reappear if, as I suggested, California offers two flavors once we go forward with Common Core.

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  8. Doug McRae

    John:  Responding to your Feb 23 comment, a fine point is that the Gen Math scores are discounted two performance levels for grade 9 students taking Gen Math, while being discounted one performance level for grade 8 students taking Gen Math as indicated in your comment. A more significant point is that your statement “the feds want every state to offer only one test” is not accurate; it is possible to design a two test scheme that is acceptable to the feds. North Carolina obtained federal peer review approval for a two test scheme involving an end-of-course Algebra I test given to students grades 9-10-11 after they took an Algebra I course, and a second Algebra Lite test given to selected Students with Disabilities and grade 12 students, with a vertical scale connecting the scores from the two tests upon which performance standards were set.  This approval was obtained in 2006.  When the issue came before the CA State Board in July, 2008, a two test remedy was suggested involving the STAR Algebra I end-of-course CST for kids taking Algebra I in grades 8-9-10-11 and an Algebra Readiness CST (to be developed) for kids not ready for an Algebra I course in grades 8-9-10-11, with a vertical scale connecting the two tests and performance standards set on that vertical scale, similar to North Carolina.  The Algebra Readiness test would be aligned to the Algebra Readiness curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and professional development initiatives previously approved by the State Board, per my comment above.  Unfortunately, neither CDE staff nor the SBE followed-up on this suggestion.  The two test design for California’s approach to phasing in Algebra I for 8th graders (realistically, a 20 year phase-in is needed, beginning in 2000 with at best a target finish date of 2020) should be acceptable to the feds.  Doug McRae, Retired Test Publisher, Monterey, CA

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  9. LTD.Edition

    In the 90′s we all learnt algebra in grade 7 and up. 100% of students…   I’m surprised it’s so low.  The most basic skills in higher thinking (being able to connect the dots not just for A then the same as B but… If A is the same as B, and C is the same as B, then A must be the same as C. It’s the type of thinking that is important in reasoning and decision making.  I don’t know why it wouldn’t be tought to everyone like we do. (British Columbia)

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  10. Cal

    “This disincentive to take General Math may be a factor why schools are assigning more students are taking Algebra. We don’t know. ”

    I’m pretty sure we do know. The answer is “yes”. Schools don’t dare risk putting their kids in something other than Algebra in 9th grade because they take a huge, huge API hit.  i’ve been in several department math meetings at more than one school where a new teacher has asked why we don’t offer pre-algebra, and the department head says “It’ll kill our API”. I find it hard to believe they’re random exceptions.

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