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Will 8th Grade Algebra Help All Kids?

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By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 24, 2008; 9:59 AM

Heated messages are still pouring in about my Sept. 22 Metro section column for The Post, " Recalculating the 8th Grade Algebra Push." It revealed new research by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless showing that many students who performed very poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth grade math test said that, nonetheless, they were considered math whizzes at their schools. Astonishingly, they were enrolled in Algebra 1, Geometry or Algebra 2 in the eighth grade.

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The numbers were startling. Nearly 29 percent of students in the bottom 10 percent on that not very challenging NAEP test said they were enrolled in Algebra 1 or above. Loveless concluded those students were grossly misplaced and should have been sent back to regular classes where they could build their math skills before they tried anything as abstract as algebra.

But Carol Burris, a New York school administrator whose work I have admired, published a review at epicpolicy.org saying Loveless had not proved his case. She said he overlooked research, including hers, showing that low-performing math students learn more in a course like algebra that sets a high standard, than in a typical eighth grade math course that does not. Her work compared cohorts of students in a school that required all students to take algebra in the eighth grade with cohorts of similar students in schools that did not have such policy. "The study showed that the probability of successfully completing advanced math courses increased significantly for all student groups in the accelerated cohorts, including minority students, students of low socioeconomic status and students in all initial achievement levels -- low and high," she said.

This is an old argument, but an important one. Several states are talking about making algebra mandatory in the eighth grade. California has already done it, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) comparing the new policy to putting a man on the moon.

As I admitted in that original column, I have long thought that getting more students into algebra earlier would help shake American middle schools out of their doldrums. I fiddled with the idea of ranking middle schools based on what percentage of their eighth graders successfully completed Algebra 1. But Loveless's data shook me. Those students in the bottom 10th were only capable of math at about a second-grade level. I didn't want them in algebra any more than Loveless did.

Typically wishy-washy, I also thought Burris had a good point. We could take those kids out of algebra, but what would they be getting instead? In many schools, the only option would be poorly taught remedial courses of little more use than staying in the cafeteria for a second helping of pizza. Burris's data indicated if they took algebra in eighth grade with their more-advanced peers, the probability of their passing the state algebra exam as well as other advanced math exams increased.

Obviously, I was hopeless. It was time to consult people who knew what they are talking about. I started with two middle school classroom stars, Vern Williams, a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel who teaches at Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, and Linda A. Allen, math lead teacher at Gunston Middle School in Arlington County. Williams's students are almost all the children of affluent college graduates. Allen's are not. But they agreed that Burris's research did not match what they were seeing with their kids.

"Using her logic we should enroll low-performing eighth grade students into calculus," Williams said. "Then they would learn even more mathematics than students who are simply enrolled into algebra or the standard eighth grade math course. I'm almost hoping this is true because then I could enroll into an advanced graduate physics course at MIT without taking any of the prerequisites. Or perhaps I could pilot the space shuttle without first learning how to fly a plane."

Allen expressed her qualms more gently: "Ms. Burris's research finding differs greatly from my own experience in almost 10 years of teaching algebra and intensified algebra with a diverse population of learners, and I would love to see her curriculum and the work that her students are able to successfully do. A true high school level algebra course applies the abstraction of real world applications. Strong skills must be in place for a student to be successful. Well less than half of my eighth grade students in any given year have both the skills foundations and the readiness for abstract thinking necessary for true algebra."

When I asked national experts about this, they said getting children ready for algebra should not stand in the way of insisting on progress for everyone. UCLA professor and author Jeannie Oakes, an advocate of raising learning standards for all children, said: "I'm pretty agnostic about when students take algebra. It doesn't seem all that important whether all kids take it in eighth grade or all kids take it in ninth grade. What does matter is the sorting of some students -- whatever their achievement -- into classes where only some benefit, not only from more challenging curriculum, but also from the differential expectations that follow when some students are winners and others losers in an educational contest over who is (and can be) good at mathematics."

Christopher B. Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, said more research was needed to sort out the NAEP data. "NAEP is a no-stakes test, so the question of student motivation is worth thinking about," Swanson said. "Algebra students who did poorly on NAEP may have done just fine on state assessments and/or course grades. One of the rationales behind the algebra-for-everyone push is that it gives students, especially the disadvantaged, more of an opportunity to get into the pipeline for a high-level math curriculum at an earlier point -- so they aren't shut out of really higher level courses later on because they don't have the prerequisites. So even if a student doesn't do well the first time around in eighth grade, he or she may do better in ninth grade, or at least better than if he or she hadn't taken algebra in eighth grade, and not fall out of the pipeline entirely."

Linda Perlstein, author of "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade" and the public editor of the Education Writers Association, reminded me that I had not made clear the standards Burris used to determine whether her students were progressing after their algebra experience. They were taking New York state regents exams, so there was an external measure to expose meaningless promotions.

I think students in the bottom 10 percent of a national eighth grade math test should not be enrolled in algebra. By that I mean real algebra. I suspect the allegedly advanced courses they were taking were mislabeled. But I also think that such students are not going to get the preparation they need in lower grades unless there is pressure on elementary and middle schools to get them ready for algebra in the eighth grade. I learned long ago that I and most other members of my leisure-loving primate species tend to slack off unless given deadlines with some consequences.

So mandatory eighth grade algebra might not be the best idea. But the middle schools need some kind of goad. I wonder if rating them by their production of successful algebra students -- measured by independent exams -- might not be such a bad idea. It will cause a lot of stress, but in public schools these days, lack of stress is not always a good thing.

Aimee Pierre, an eighth grade math teacher at the KIPP Ways Academy charter school in Atlanta, said 78 percent of her mostly impoverished students passed the state algebra test last school year.

Bottom line: Let's forget about eighth grade algebra for all. But let's push eighth grade algebra for as many as possible.


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