Not Ready for Algebra

, Irene Warren, Leave a comment

A trend shows that elementary and advanced math students have fallen below the national average. The Brown Center on Education Policy hosted an event at the Brookings Institution recently to discuss possible ways to better prepare students to succeed in higher-level math courses.

“Algebra in eighth grade was once reserved for the mathematically gifted student” the Brookings Institution noted in an October 2008 events announcement. “From 1990 to 2007, national enrollment in algebra courses soared from 16 percent to more than 30 percent of all eighth graders.” However, proficiency scores of advanced eighth-grade algebra students show a continued decline, explained Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.

Actually, students who were not necessarily mathematically-gifted in Catholic schools in the 1960s and 1970s were routinely taught Algebra I as a general requirement in 6th grade.

In a September 2008 Special Release Report entitled, “The Misplaced Math Student: Lost In Eighth-Grade Algebra,” Loveless presented information as to what might be causing the advanced eighth-grade algebra students to fall below the national goal.

“In 1990, very few eighth graders, about one out of six, were enrolled in an algebra course. As the decade unfolded, leaders began urging schools to increase that number. President Clinton lamented, ‘Around the world, middle school students are learning algebra and geometry. Here at home, just a quarter of all students take algebra before high school.’ The administration made enrolling all children in an algebra course by eighth grade a national goal,” as Loveless reported in the 2008 documented study.

“In 1996, the District of Columbia led the nation with 53 percent of eighth graders enrolled in algebra. From 1990 to 2000, national enrollment in algebra courses soared from 16 percent to 24 percent of all eighth graders. The surge continued into the next decade. Eighth-grade enrollment in algebra hit 31 percent nationally in 2007, a near doubling of the 1990 proportion,” Loveless reported in the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education. “Today more U.S. eighth graders take algebra than any other math course. In July 2008, the State of California decided to adopt an algebra test as its eighth-grade assessment of student proficiency. The policy in effect mandates that all eighth graders will be enrolled in algebra by 2011.”

“The push for universal eighth-grade algebra is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence,” Loveless noted in the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education. “General or remedial math courses tend to be curricular dead-ends, leading to more courses with the same title—and no real progression in mathematical content.” Few studies, moreover, will make a sharp examination of the math instruction public school students get in the run up to 8th grade or its lack of rigor and vacuity of content.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade scores, as presented in the 2008 report, “for students in advanced math (2000-2007), the national average rose steadily while advanced scores fell.”

The NAEP also presented data showing “course-taking in eighth-grade math, 2000 and 2005: Eighth-grade enrollment in Algebra 1 and other advanced math classes rose sharply from 2000 to 2005. Enrollment in basic math saw a decline.”

Next, the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education also showed just how far behind students were in math: “the average NAEP score for eighth graders in advanced math classes is 291. The national average for all eighth graders is 279. On the same NAEP scale, the national average for fourth graders is 238. The misplaced eighth graders score an average of 211, which is 27 scale score points below the national average for fourth grade. Analysts consider 11 NAEP scale score points as approximately equivalent to one year of learning, which means that these misplaced students know about as much as a typical second grader. Advanced students score about one year above grade level. The misplaced students function about seven grade levels below peers enrolled in the same courses.”

According to Loveless, the background characteristics of the 120,000 misplaced students, which was retrieved from the NAEP surveys on the students’ families, schools, and teachers, showed, “misplaced students are more likely to come from poor families—69.8 percent qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, a proxy for family income.” This is more than double the percentage for students in advanced classes (30.4 percent) and nearly twice that of the national average (36.1 percent).” “Misplaced students are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, about 77.0 percent versus 32.3 percent of all eighth graders in the nation. Only 20.3 percent report that their mothers graduated from college,” as the 2008 Brown Center Report showed.

Thus, Loveless claims, “about half of the misplaced students attend urban schools (50.9 percent), and they are less likely to attend suburban or rural schools than the average eighth grader. Their schools tend to be large, enrolling about 27 percent more students than the typical school in eighth grade (1,012 students versus 794). Almost all of the misplaced students are attending public schools, with only 2.3 percent going to private schools. The schools serve vast numbers of students in poverty.”

As for the teachers of misplaced students, Loveless claimed, “compared to teachers of the typical eighth grader, the teachers of misplaced students are more likely to have taught for less than five years (30.3 percent versus 22.5 percent), less likely to hold a regular or advanced teaching certificate (74.7 percent versus 82.5 percent) and less likely to have majored in mathematics as an undergraduate (20.1 percent versus 26.2 percent).”

“The argument that advanced math courses are a civil right apparently has had an impact on schools, boosting the enrollment of black, Hispanic, and poor children in advanced courses. Unfortunately, the children in the current study are unprepared for algebra. And they come from homes in which, probably lacking the resources to afford tutors and other remedial materials, support may be tenuous when academic troubles occur,” as Loveless indicates in the 2008 Brown Center Report.

In the end, Loveless argued, “No social benefit is produced by placing students in classes for which they are unprepared,” as he noted in the 2008 Brown Center Report. “The burden of realizing such an idealistic view of mathematics learning falls on the classroom teacher.” Therefore, as a way to improve student performance in math, Loveless suggested, “we must establish the right goals and pursue sound strategies for achieving them.”

Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust and long-time admirer of Tom Loveless’ work, strongly disagreed with some of the data in which he provided in the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education.

“The reader is actually encouraged, I think you will agree, to view that as high-achieving kids are suffering because of all these low-achieving, especially poor or minority, kids who are sitting in their classes,” Haycock argued. “What he does not tell you is that NAEP data do not back up that hypothesis.” Further, she claimed, “since 2003, both high achievers and low achievers are up. Low achievers by six points, high achievers by four. So I think there’s a little miscommunication there to say the least.”

Concluding, although Haycock agrees with Loveless that more needs to take place to ensure students improve in math, she also contended, “Number one, it is very clear to me, as I’m sure it is to all of you, when you look at the international data that all kids need to grow way more. Our top kids need to grow. And I agree that that includes in particular our top-achieving low-income and minority kids. So please don’t get me wrong here. I think all of our kids, including the high achievers, need to grow.”

“We have to work on earlier parts leading up to the algebra. Whenever that occurs as Kati was talking about,” Henry Kepner, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, argued. “So the challenge is serious for the teacher. And I think that’s a problem that we have to consider and say how can we provide the professional development with materials that can help teachers do a better job of trying to cope with those students. And that’s where the idea is the interventions come in, I think that are very important.”

Finally, Vern Williams, a mathematic teacher at Longfellow Middle School who has been teaching mathematics a little over 35 years says, “sometimes teachers are asked to change their instructional approach. I’ve heard the term ‘teach smarter.’ You don’t have the top ten or 20 percent of the students anymore, so you will need to teach smarter. And that translates in my world into stop teaching algebra, teach something else.”

Further, Williams argued, “it’s also unreasonable to expect for all students to learn an algebra course in one year with as much as a seven-year knowledge gap. And as an algebra teacher I don’t want to be given the impossible task of teaching a real algebra course to students who are mathematically many years behind their peers. And I should not be expected to water down the course that I’ve been instructed to teach.”

As a possible way to increase student learning in mathematics, Williams suggested, “So, I think we should set reasonable expectations and I think that was in the report, enroll students in an algebra course when they are ready to take and learn algebra, whether it be in seventh grade, ninth grade, or any other grade.”

Irene Warren is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.