Mathematics What the Research Says

4 Questions to Boost Algebra Gains for Middle Schoolers

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 17, 2024 5 min read
Photo of a Black male teacher giving a math less to Junior-high Black students.
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More than 1 in 3 public school students now take Algebra 1 before high school. For those students to succeed, schools must adjust middle school programs to better match student readiness to class support, experts warn.

New federal civil rights data show that more than 931,000, or 36 percent, of U.S. public school students took Algebra 1 in middle school as of 2021.

However, students who are ready to tackle algebra don’t get equal access to the course.

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Illustration of a math student.
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (Images: Getty)

A separate study of nearly 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 during the pandemic found among students with above-average math scores, 55 percent of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students enrolled in algebra by 8th grade, compared to 63 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian students. The disparities highlight gaps in both the course offerings in middle schools and how students get placed in challenging math courses.

Similarly, the civil rights data show that while 85 percent of students who took algebra by 8th grade passed it, that ranged from 89 percent of Asian students to 78 percent of Black students.

While efforts to promote universal access to algebra by 8th grade have gained traction in states and districts, studies find they have produced mixed results both in boosting students’ math progress and closing racial, gender, and socioeconomic gaps in higher math course-taking.

To ensure middle school math programs serve a wide array of students well, experts say administrators should ask key questions.

1. What are our long-term goals for students?

Algebra 1 is a graduation requirement in every state, and a necessary prerequisite to higher math in high school and beyond. Studies show that for students interested in a two- or four-year postsecondary degree, completing that content before high school provides a huge boost.

Federal data show students who took Algebra 1 in middle school were 24 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year degree than students who took the course just a year later. Moreover, students who waited until 10th grade or later to take Algebra 1 were more than twice as likely as those who took middle school algebra to forgo postsecondary education at all.

School district leaders should ensure middle school programs align with overall college-readiness needs at high school and at area postsecondary requirements.

2. How quickly do your students learn?

Beyond just math achievement, schools should consider the pace of student learning when identifying which students participate in algebra before high school, said Scott Peters, the director of research partnerships at the testing group NWEA and author of a new guide to identifying student algebra readiness.

Using data from a multi-grade computer-adaptive test and state assessments in Ohio, Georgia, and Texas, Peters and his colleagues compared students’ math learning growth in grades 6 and 7 to their likelihood of scoring at the proficient level in their state’s 8th grade Algebra 1 test (That threshold is associated with a score of 238 on the adaptive tests, which uses a scale score of 100 to 350).

“By most of our research, 30 to 40 percent of 8th graders are ready for Algebra I and have a good chance of being successful,” Peters said. “We should probably stop the binaries of either the top 2 percent or 100 percent” of middle school students taking algebra.

“It completely comes down to this question of, what level of growth can you reasonably expect?” Peters said.

On average, students grow more slowly from year to year in math as they progress in grades. For example, in 6th grade, the average student improved by about 5 points a year (on a scale of 100 to 350) on the NWEA’s test, and students in the top 30 percent improved by 8 points. By 8th grade, students on average saw only 2 points of growth in math, with the students in the top 30 percent growing only 6 points.

“If the school is set up in such a way that there are lots of supports—there’s peer mentoring, there’s tutoring, lots of technology resources, the algebra curriculum is designed with lots of scaffolding built in—then you can let in students with a lot lower level of readiness because you can leverage that higher level of growth,” he said. “But if you have a stereotypical, hardcore ‘sink-or-swim’ math teacher and there’s no extra help, ... you really can’t let in those lower-scoring students, because they’re going to struggle and be much less likely to be successful.”

For example, Karen Rambo-Hernandez, an associate professor of education at Texas A&M University and former algebra teacher, suggested schools may consider allowing a broad range of students to take algebra, but creating a one-hour algebra class for advanced students and a two-hour class for those who learn at average or slower rates, to give them more time to process the content.

3. What should the class makeup be?

There’s little consensus on what makes for the most effective mix of student abilities in math class, but it is clear that teachers cope with a widening array of student needs.

Across U.S. 8th grade classrooms, 35 percent of students scored at or below the lowest benchmark on the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science assessment for math, while 14 percent met or exceeded the advanced math benchmark, according to a recent study.

More than a third of 8th grade classrooms included students across all four achievement levels. Nearly 40 percent of the variance in math performance on the TIMSS happened among students within the same classroom. In practical terms, this means the same 8th grade Algebra 1 class could include students who are comfortable solving multivariable linear equations, while others have an elementary-grade understanding of whole numbers.

“So many districts are either saying [8th grade algebra] has got to be everybody, you know, universal enrollment, or else it’s only for the uber-mathematically gifted kids,” Peters said. “I just think both of those really ignore like human diversity. ... The whole point is to try to remove those biases, provide more relevant criteria, and much more proactively align kids with the curriculum they’re ready for.”

4. How interested are students?

While prior student achievement and growth are the strongest predictors of success in middle school algebra, Rambo-Hernandez suggested schools also consider students’ individual interests and motivation toward math. For example, “kids who have stronger self-efficacy may not get intimidated when they get to algebra as much as someone who has lower self-efficacy.”

For one thing, students are more likely to read for pleasure than to pursue algebra practice outside of class and homework. Schools can use extracurricular activities, such as math or robotics teams, to boost interest in challenging math in younger middle school grades.

“In reading, you can just pick up a harder book if you want it once you’ve got the basics of decoding, without the direct instruction of a teacher,” said Rambo-Hernandez. “Whereas in math, you kind of need a teacher to say, okay, you’ve mastered this skill, so we’re gonna move on to this next skill.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2024 edition of Education Week as 4 Questions to Boost Algebra Gains for Middle Schoolers

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