TJ to Make Middle School Algebra a Requirement

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

In a move that underscores a nationwide effort to boost the quality of math and science education, Fairfax County's selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will begin to require that all applicants take algebra in middle school.

Most students seeking admission to the highly competitive Northern Virginia public magnet school already take algebra, and even geometry, by eighth grade. Others take a summer algebra course to prepare for the rigors of Thomas Jefferson, which doesn't offer first-year algebra.

The new policy means that taking a year of algebra early in their academic careers is no longer just highly desirable for such students. It's mandatory.

Principal Evan Glazer said the requirement, effective for freshmen entering in fall 2008, stresses the importance of a solid math background to applicants who will need to use those skills for calculus, computer science and biology research.

"It's very wise to have a sustained year-long algebra course that allows students to delve deep into the topic," he said. "If you don't have a strong foundation, it will make it more difficult."

About 460 freshmen will enter Thomas Jefferson this fall, school officials said. Those students, from several Northern Virginia school systems, were selected based on their grades, a standardized test, essays and teacher recommendations.

The change at Thomas Jefferson mirrors efforts across the country to beef up math and science classes to better prepare students for challenging college work and, ultimately, for jobs in engineering, medicine, computer science and other fields.

For the first time this fall, Florida middle schools are required to offer one high school-level math course. Last year, President Bush appointed a panel of experts to recommend ways to improve public school math instruction, with a focus on algebra.

In the Washington area, the number of middle school students taking more difficult math courses has been on the rise. For example, half of Arlington County's eighth-graders completed first-year algebra or a higher-level math course in 2006, compared with 35 percent in 2002.

Nationwide, about 42 percent of eighth-graders were enrolled in algebra or higher math in 2005, up from about 27 percent in 2000, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

David M. Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and president-elect of the Mathematical Association of America, said middle school algebra can be a critical steppingstone for students who want to study engineering or science in college.

"You get students who have all the options open for them," Bressoud said. "It's easier to move into science or technology or mathematics majors." But he added, "There are problems when students are pushed into Algebra I in eighth grade before they are ready for it."

Leah Quinn, a Montgomery County schools math supervisor, said the system has revised the elementary math curriculum in recent years to help students learn the skills they will need to take algebra in middle school. Teacher training is offered, as well as accelerated programs for students who show an early knack for numbers.

Fairfax school officials said they have taken a similar approach. "It's not just a matter of offering the course; it's a matter of preparing the kids and preparing the teachers," said Frank Atchison, the county system's math coordinator.

Quinn said more than half of Montgomery's eighth-graders take algebra. She said research has shown that those students are likely to have higher SAT scores than peers who took traditional middle school pre-algebra classes. Montgomery schools require first-year algebra for middle school students who apply to the county's two magnet programs that focus on science, math and computer science.

Raillan Brooks, 17, a 2007 Thomas Jefferson graduate who is heading to Harvard University, said he might have struggled if he hadn't taken algebra and geometry before his freshman year.

"It was extraordinarily important," Brooks said. "In my biology class especially, the teacher required that we do a research paper, and a large part of the requirement was statistical analysis and being able to do the math."

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