Does 'Algebra for Everyone' Add Up?

Study finds some eighth graders in algebra know only as much math as a second grader.

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A recent study finds that many middle school students are thrust into algebra and other advanced math classes even though they have the skills of only a second grader. Among the lowest-performing eighth graders on a national math test, nearly 3 out of every 10 were in advanced math classes (Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry), according to the study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. These findings don't bode well for California and Minnesota, two states that recently adopted policies requiring all students to take algebra by the eighth grade. "It's going to be a disaster," Tom Loveless, a Brookings fellow and author of the study, said of California's algebra mandate, which takes effect in 2011.

Since its release last week, Loveless's study has been the subject of much debate. The Washington Post's Jay Mathews, a supporter of getting kids to take algebra sooner, said in a column that he was having second thoughts after reading the study's "startling" results. University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Adam Gamoran, who has called for algebra classes to be offered to struggling high schoolers, told USA Today that "some mistakes have been made" but that these students still get more out of algebra than from general math classes.

According to Loveless's analysis, some 120,000 eighth graders taking advanced math classes scored in the lowest 10 percent on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test. These students, Loveless says, know about as much math as a typical second grader. To show the weak correlation between achievement and eighth-grade enrollment in advanced math, Loveless points to Washington, D.C., which has one of the highest enrollment rates of middle school students in advanced math classes. Yet it posted the lowest overall average score on the same national math test. (Interestingly, Minnesota, which plans to make algebra mandatory for all eighth graders in the coming years, had the second-highest average math score, but only 35 percent of its middle school students take advanced math now.)

The report's findings are sobering in another way. Loveless identifies most of the misplaced eighth graders as black and Latino students attending underserved urban high schools—the same group that supporters of "algebra for everyone" said would benefit most. The push for universal eighth-grade algebra stems from a campaign in the mid-1990s led by the Clinton administration and education activists who called algebra "the new civil right." To this day, advocates argue that students, especially minorities, are more likely to attend four-year colleges if they are exposed to challenging math classes before high school. Loveless doesn't disagree with the goal but says the approach is all wrong. "Equality is a great goal, but let's be smart about it," Loveless says, noting that students are set up to fail when they are unprepared for algebra or other advanced math. The strong students in those classes are also at risk of falling behind when the slower students cannot keep up or if the course is watered down. Rather than calling for algebra mandates, Loveless recommends putting more emphasis on bolstering elementary-school math education and offering appropriate support to students and teachers earlier on.

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Brookings Institution