Schools & Learning

Adding Eighth-Graders to the Equation

Gunston Middle School algebra teacher Linda Allen works to identify students who could succeed in higher-level math.
Gunston Middle School algebra teacher Linda Allen works to identify students who could succeed in higher-level math. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

Like baseball scouts, Arlington County math teacher Linda Allen and her colleagues at Gunston Middle School scour the rolls every year to find more students who can play in their equivalent of the big leagues: eighth-grade algebra.

For many years, only the so-called smart kids, the ones everyone knew got good grades, were allowed to take first-year algebra before they got to high school.

But in Arlington middle schools and many others in the Washington area, algebra classes are proliferating. Last year, half of Arlington eighth-graders completed first-year algebra, including some who took even higher-level math. A Washington Post survey found the percentages rising in nearly every other local school system.

In 2002, The Post found only five localities where at least 40 percent of eighth-graders finished algebra: Falls Church and Fairfax, Howard, Loudoun and Montgomery counties. Data from 2006 show public schools in five more counties are meeting that standard: Anne Arundel, Arlington, Calvert, Clarke and Frederick.

Nationally, the portion of eighth-graders in algebra or in higher math is also on the rise, from about 27 percent in 2000 to about 42 percent in 2005, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Unlike the Post survey, the national figures do not indicate what portion of eighth-graders completed algebra.

Experts say the trend toward early algebra is driven by more rigorous teaching and a commitment to providing greater access to a course that provides a crucial foundation for further study in math and science. Algebra, they say, opens doors. That can be especially important at schools such as Gunston Middle, where about half of the students are economically disadvantaged.

"We work to identify and support students so that they can move ahead as they are successful, and we sometimes make moves mid-year," Allen said. "Many kids move ahead in elementary school, but many of our students make the leap in sixth or seventh grade."

Some skeptics worry that kids are being rushed and the math curriculum is being watered down.

But to Montgomery school Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, a leader in the middle school algebra movement, the benefits are obvious. "I know it is the gateway to success in Advanced Placement in high school," he said, referring to the college-level high school program. He added: "Our studies show that students who take algebra in the eighth grade score on average 83 points higher on the math portion of the SAT than their peers who are taking math on grade level in the eighth grade."

In Montgomery, 49 percent of eighth-graders finished algebra in 2006, up from 45 percent four years earlier. John Hoven, a Montgomery parent who has pushed for more rigorous courses for several years, said he thinks the percentage can climb further if math courses are strengthened in earlier grades, as Weast said he is doing. "If Montgomery County upgraded its math standards by weeding out the fluff," Hoven said, "probably 75 percent of [county] students could complete a rigorous Algebra I course in eighth grade."

But Vern Williams, a Fairfax County middle school math teacher who serves on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, said he has seen first-year algebra courses in some places that do not merit the label. "Twenty-five years ago, practically everyone in the mathematics community was in agreement on the content taught in a first-year algebra course," said Williams, who teaches at Longfellow Middle School. "In 2007, an algebra course could consist of little more than statistics projects, calculator activities and connections to the 'real world' that involve very little mathematical content."

Virginia and Maryland use statewide algebra tests to help gauge student learning, although there is some debate as to whether those tests set a high enough standard. A desire to ensure all algebra students master the subject has led St. Mary's County schools to buck the trend. There, officials have reduced access to eighth-grade algebra.

Charles E. Ridgell III, the St. Mary's director of curriculum and instruction, said 18 percent of eighth-graders in 2006 completed algebra. That was down from 34 percent in 2005 and 2002. He said the county's middle schools established "clear criteria" for enrollment in algebra, including good scores on state math tests and on a local algebra readiness test. "A solid foundation in mathematics would increase the likelihood of their success in algebra," he said.

Administrators elsewhere said their teachers can teach algebra well even to students who begin with lower qualifications than what St. Mary's accepts.

In neighboring Calvert County, where the eighth-grade algebra completion rate has risen to 40 percent, some students who have difficulty with the course are given a double dose. "These students receive the same curriculum but are given twice the amount of time to process and practice the skills taught during class," said Calvert's secondary math supervisor, Mark Wilding.

For the most part, local school systems have scrapped policies that once kept many students out of eighth-grade algebra even if parents asked for the course. But in Howard and St. Mary's counties and in the District, The Post survey found that administrators routinely turn down parental requests for middle school algebra if they conflict with school placement recommendations.

Most school officials say they want to improve pre-algebra instruction for poor and minority students. In Montgomery, 22 percent of students from low-income families, 26 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students complete algebra by the end of eighth grade. The rate is 64 percent for white students and 72 percent for Asian students.

In Arlington, Allen said it is vital to assume that every child can succeed in algebra. "I've been teaching long enough to know that I can't make a foolproof prediction about a student's potential for success in algebra based only on seventh-grade test scores," she said. "Adolescents change on a daily basis. Maturity, responsibility and abstract thinking grow unevenly. I'm an advocate of giving kids a chance to perform. There are wonderful surprises every year."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company