Algebra 2: Not the Same Credential It Used to Be?

By Erik W. Robelen — September 04, 2013 5 min read
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If a student’s transcript shows the successful completion of Algebra 2, what does that really mean? Although a lot more students today are completing the course, a new analysis suggests that line on the transcript means less than in days of yore.

“Taking and successfully completing an Algebra II course, which once certified high school students’ mastery of advanced topics in algebra and solid preparation for college-level mathematics, no longer means what it once did,” writes Tom Loveless of the Brooking Institution in a blog post. “The credentialing integrity of Algebra II has weakened.”

The post by Loveless addresses one dimension of a broader study he just completed on “assessing algebra in a national and international context.”

His conclusion about Algebra 2 is based mainly on a look at recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed “the nation’s report card.”

The good news is that the percentage of 17-year-olds who successfully complete a second year of algebra has climbed from 44 percent in 1986 to 76 percent in 2012, according to NAEP survey data he cites. The trouble? At the same time, their average NAEP math scores have declined. From 1992 to 2012, the score for these Algebra 2-completers dipped by 10 points on the zero-to-500 NAEP scale. Presumably, if more students were getting more math, the average score would have risen considerably.

Here’s a chart from the Loveless analysis:

Loveless said he examined the NAEP data more carefully to be sure there was no mistaking the trend line. He looked at the scores separately for blacks, Hispanics, and whites. In all cases, the average math scores for those completing Algebra 2 declined since 1986, the earliest year such data were available.

So, what’s going on here? Loveless said it’s impossible to say for sure. He suggests it may well be a result of more low-performing students taking the course in 2012 than in prior years. It could also be that today’s Algebra 2 textbooks are of lower quality, or that Algebra 2 teachers are not as effective as they once were.

“There are several plausible theories,” he writes in the report. “The point here is that the completion of Algebra II has lost some of its luster as a credentialing mechanism, as a signal to prospective colleges and employees of a student’s accomplishments in learning mathematics.”

In an interview, Loveless leaned toward an explanation based on changes in the preparation level of students who take Algebra 2, combined with how educators respond to that new reality.

“Something is changing, and I think it’s the kids” taking the course, he said. “I hear from teachers all the time, that they’re really not able to teach Algebra 2 anymore. They teach Algebra 1.5. ... It appears that the courses don’t cover the material that the course title implies.”

He adds, “Kids are coming out of these advanced courses with good grades and they [enter] a four-year college and can’t pass the placement test, and have to take remedial math,” he said.

(In his blog post, he cites recent data from California State University to back this assertion. In 2012, about 30 percent of entering freshmen taking the entry-level math test failed it and were placed in remedial math classes, despite earning a mean GPA of 3.15 in college-prep high school programs.)

Transcript Study

A high school transcript study issued earlier this year sheds some light on this issue of what’s being taught, though it does not cover Algebra 2. Researchers at the National Center for Education Statistics analyzed textbooks used in Algebra 1, geometry, and integrated math courses. As NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley told Education Week, “We found that there is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra 1 and geometry courses.” In fact, the analysis found that labels such as “honors” and “regular” provide no guidance as to the rigor of courses. Less than one in five students who took an Algebra 1 course called “honors” encountered a curriculum that the researchers coded as “rigorous.”

Just recently, the issue of poor math achievement for high schoolers was raised in the Montgomery County school district in Maryland, one of the state’s highest-achieving school systems. The Washington Post reported that large numbers of students failed various math exams. In all, 57 percent of students failed the districtwide final exam in Algebra 2, while 62 percent failed the geometry exam and 61 percent the Algebra 1 exam. By contrast, only 12 percent of students failed the Algebra 2 course, and 16 percent the geometry course, far below the failure rates on the districtwide exams.

As for the new Brookings study, it does not simply look at the question about what Algebra 2 on a transcript really means. The study’s main focus is on the need to measure “in a sound, trustworthy manner” national progress in learning algebra. Current national and international exams do not accomplish this, the study says. (It notes, for instance, that NAEP does not address all the topics covered in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, and that it’s also both “too early” and “too late,” since the exams that include algebra content come at grades 8 and 12.) The study identifies only five states that currently offer an end-of-course exam in Algebra 2.

The Brookings research also raises questions about the forthcoming common-core exams. While the PARCC coalition is developing end-of-course exams for Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and geometry, the Smarter Balanced consortium is developing a comprehensive test that will encompass content learned in either a traditional math sequence of Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and geometry, or a set of integrated courses.

The Common Core State Standards in math set the expectation that all students will master math content at what’s generally considered the Algebra 2 level. In a recent Education Week story, I took a closer look at how states and districts are responding to those provisions. For one, even though it’s true that Algebra 2 completion rates are up, one-quarter of students today do not take the course. And despite the common-core expectations, fewer than half of all states currently require students to complete Algebra 2 to graduate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.