Recalculating The 8th-Grade Algebra Rush

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 22, 2008

Nobody writing about schools has been a bigger supporter of getting more students into eighth-grade algebra than I have been. I wrote a two-part series for the front page six years ago that pointed out how important it is to be able to handle algebra's abstractions and unknown quantities before starting high school. I have argued that we should rate middle schools by the percentage of students who complete Algebra I by eighth grade.

Now, because of a startling study being released today, I am having second thoughts.

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, has looked at the worst math students, those scoring in the bottom 10th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade test. He discovered that 28.6 percent of them -- let me make that clear: nearly three out of every 10 -- were enrolled in first-year algebra, geometry or second-year algebra. Almost all were grossly misplaced, probably because of the push to get kids into algebra sooner.

The report (to be available at ) reprints this simple NAEP problem:

There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?

A) 9

B) 81

C) 91

D) 99

E) 100

The correct answer is D. Ten percent of 90 is 9. Add that to 90 and you get 99. How many of the misplaced students got it right? Just 9.8 percent. Not good.

This is a big problem for the region and the nation. Politicians and policymakers have fallen in love with the idea of eighth-grade algebra for all. Their ardor is not likely to cool off soon. California is moving toward making the course mandatory for eighth-graders, a shift Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) compared to President John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon.

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