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Algebra in 8th grade: What’s changed?

By Dr. Charles Powell (see other posts by Chuck)

Algebra in the 8th grade is a hot topic currently. But Algebra I in the 8th grade isn’t a new topic. Algebra was taught in the 8th grade when I was in middle school more than 30 years ago. So why all the sudden fuss; what has changed?  It turns out, plenty, and not as media pundits would have you believe.

Yes, state policy is pressuring middle schools to send more students to high school with Algebra I under their belts. But, no, today’s 8th graders are not doing worse than 8th graders from previous years, nor are they receiving a free pass along the way. In fact, today’s 8th graders are performing better in mathematics than their counterparts in any of the last 30 years, and more 8th graders are completing Algebra I than ever before. (Institute for Education Sciences, 8th-Grade Algebra: Findings From the 8th-Grade Round of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p.11 and Institute for Education Sciences, NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2009, p.29.)

Some critics, such as the Brown Center, make valid points about the difficulties caused by placing all 8th graders in Algebra I without sufficient supports.  But that “without sufficient supports” matters and is the meat of the solution, if you will (hint: never write a blog post when you’re hungry!).

I take Algebra I policy and practice rather personally. It was the subject of my doctoral dissertation more than 15 years ago. I identified the list of high schools in Texas that had at least half of their kids eligible for free lunch, and I was lucky enough to visit the 10 schools with the highest average score on the then-new Texas Algebra I End of Course Exam. Without making you slog through all 200 pages, suffice it to say that every school had a school leader who had the teachers’ backs. And, every school had an agreement among administration and faculty that students completing Algebra I was a given, not an option to strive for. Remember, this was almost 20 years ago, when Algebra I was not even a high school graduation requirement in most states.

Today, the math courses a student takes in high school bear on not only their high school transcript but their eventual success in college, so there is ample reason why getting kids successfully through Algebra I in 8th grade and subsequently through Advanced Placement®/ International Baccalaureate® math course(s) in high school matters:

Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor's degree completion. (Adelman, 1999)

And, in particular:

Advanced Placement course taking is more strongly correlated with bachelor’s degree completion than it is with college access.

Now reread those two quotes again. What they are saying is that intensity of courses taken in high school matters. In fact, students completing a course at the Advanced Placement (and assuming equally the International Baccalaureate) level correlates with double the chances of COMPLETING college, not just getting accepted.

Even more telling for this post, the level specifically of the highest mathematics course completed in high school has the strongest influence on completing a bachelor’s degree. By “continuing influence,” Dr. Adelman is referring to his process of weeding out the factors that lead to a bachelor’s degree. The story he tells in his research is one of incredible focus and specificity.  He gives factors such as a student’s race every opportunity to show up as significant in his equations. It does not. He also gives factors such as the highest math course completed in high school every opportunity to fall out of significance. Instead it remains in the story as significant longer than any other factor.

So what to do with our kids in middle school, some who enter middle school on track for Algebra I in two or three years along with other kids who are not? As with every other “controversy” in education, the answer lies between the two extremes – in this case between universal enrollment in Algebra I without additional support versus restriction from Algebra I for some students. For those of you reading this blog, that additional support includes AVID. As the researcher known for her work on gifted and talented education, Jeanie Oakes, put it 15 years ago:

The notion or typical expectation is that these kids are so many years behind others in college-prep that they can’t catch up. What AVID says is that maybe they’re only 50 minutes a day behind. (AVID Access Interview, 1997)

The goal should be to ensure that as many students as possible complete Algebra I at a level of mastery that they are prepared for geometry as freshmen. The best place to start is with schools that are having success doing exactly this. (Click here to read the “Jackson Middle School Algebra” success story on pages 10-11.)  Then revise the school’s improvement plan to include or strengthen the goal toward algebra for all. Accomplishing this goal is possible, but it takes more than merely saying so.

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Reader Comments (4)

If all 8th graders take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade, I want to know what math are they taking their senior year of high school. Ideally, we would like the student to be taking and Advanced Placement course like Calculus. However, I have experienced students deciding not to take a math course their senior because they already have the required 4 math credits. If the students are in AVID, I have made them take the AP course as part of their requirement to be in AVID. Unfortunately, I have had students drop AVID because they do not want to take a 4th math course. Is there any data on the 8th graders who took Algebra 1 in the 8th grade and how many of those students ended in an AP course their senior year?

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTami Dudo

I am wondering how this will wok in Texas, our students are required to take 4 math and 4 science courses in high school, but will they still be required to take math all 4 years if they have already had Alg. I in middle school?

February 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulian

Both reader comments essentially ask the same question: If kids take Algebra I in the 8th grade, what will they take as seniors in high school? The answer is either calculus or statistics. This answer assumes that they take Geometry, Algebra II, and precalculus/trigonometry as freshmen through juniors. These courses and their sequence haven't changed for 30 years for students intending on attending college. As seniors the choice of calculus or statistics also assumes that they take either course as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Powell

I missed directly answering Tami Dudo's question. Rather than looking at data on how many students who took Algebra I in 8th grade subsequently took calculus as seniors in high school, I lean on the data linking taking calculus in high school with college graduation. Clifford Adelman's ground breaking work, Answers in the Toolbox (www2.ed.gov/pubx/Toolbox) showed that students who took AP or IB level mathematics in high school were more likely to graduate college (ie. much more than simply being accepted to college) than their peers who did not complete AP (assuming similarly IB) mathematics while in high school.

Now logistically in order to take calculus in high school, and assuming a student doesn't double up on mathematics courses, it would be necessary to complete Algebra I as an 8th grader.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Powell

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