Common Core’s ‘Algebra Delay’ Causes Ongoing Concerns

By Liana Loewus — April 11, 2016 2 min read
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Under the Common Core State Standards, parents and middle school students are being asked to “restrain their ambitions and delay algebra until high school,” long-time education reporter Jay Mathews wrote in the Washington Post yesterday. And parents aren’t likely to tolerate that, he said.

For decades, there were concerted efforts in many places to get more students taking Algebra I in 8th grade, rather than high school when it’s traditionally taught. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has argued recently that those efforts are coming to a halt under the common-core standards. Using national assessment data, Loveless determined that between 2013 and 2015, 8th grade enrollment in Algebra I declined from 48 percent to 43 percent.

San Francisco schools recently went from requiring that all students take Algebra I in 8th grade to forbidding it. Now all students take the course as freshmen.

It’s important to note that Algebra I has changed significantly under the common core. As I wrote last year, Algebra 1 is now a much tougher course than what was taught previously in most states. That’s because 8th grade math is also now a much tougher course—and one which includes many algebra concepts.

“There’s big confusion between the Algebra 1 course with a capital A and algebra, the mathematical subject,” William G. McCallum, a mathematics education professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and one of the lead writers of the common standards, told me. "[T]here’s now tons of algebra content in the 8th grade.”

A commenter on Mathews’ piece wrote, “I taught ‘Algebra 1' for 18 years. I am now teaching Math 8. Two-thirds of my curriculum is the same as before.”

Getting to Calculus

But many families still want their students take calculus as seniors, which has long been a driver for encouraging 8th grade Algebra I. “Parents who need a clear reason for restraining math acceleration in middle school are not getting it,” writes Mathews.

How much of this is the common core’s fault, and how much is due to communication or implementation problems? The guidance in the common-core standards does advise strongly against skipping material—for instance, going straight from 7th grade math to the Algebra I course. But it also suggests several methods for acceleration. One of those is a three-years-in-two option in which students take the content of 7th grade math, 8th grade math, and Algebra 1 in the last two years of middle school.

Students could also accelerate earlier in elementary school, again by compressing but not skipping content, or later in high school.

"[A]mbitious parents such as the ones I knew in Scarsdale are unlikely to tolerate delaying algebra, no matter what the experts say,” writes Mathews. And that may be true. But would those parents be open to other forms of acceleration if they knew how much the 8th grade math and Algebra I courses had changed?

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