In 8th Grade, Separate Algebra is Unequal Algebra for Black Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 11, 2020 6 min read
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Algebra is considered the gateway to advanced mathematics, and school districts across the country have hoped to diversify access to college-preparatory math by increasing the number of students who take algebra by the end of 8th grade. But calling a course “Algebra” doesn’t guarantee black students are getting equal access to the math content they need to succeed in high school.

A study released this week in the journal Educational Researcher found teachers cover significantly less algebra material in those classes at predominately black schools than their peers in schools that are mostly white or have no racial majority.

“You know, districts have opened up algebra access to more students, but the question is, what are they getting access to?” said Karisma Morton, an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of North Texas. She co-wrote the study with Catherine Riegle-Crumb of the University of Texas, Austin.

The researchers used data from the U.S. Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which included a survey of 8th grade teachers in 111 schools nationwide on their teaching practices. Teachers reported how much time they spent covering various concepts in their 8th grade algebra classes, from algebra and more advanced concepts like geometry to basic numeracy.

In schools where black students made up 60 percent or more of the student body, teachers reported spending on average 72 percent of their class time on content covering algebra or more advanced topics, versus 28 percent of class time spent on more basic numeracy topics, such as fractions, Morton and Riegle-Crumb found. By contrast, schools that were majority white spent 82 percent of class time on algebra or more advanced concepts and10 percentage points less time on more basic skills. Schools with a Latino majority did not show significant differences in their algebra course content from those without a racial majority.

“I was not surprised ... but I found the results jarring,” Morton said. “I feel like especially in today’s climate, we need to be very much focused on what’s happening and not assume that opening up access guarantees opportunities to learn.”

Access Versus Opportunities

For nearly a decade, states and districts have pressed inititiatives to include more traditionally underrepresented students in algebra by the end of 8th grade as a means of widening the pipeline of such students to advanced math in high school and, eventually, to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The EdTrust, a nonprofit education advocacy group, found that based on national civil rights data, black students were underrepresented in 8th grade algebra in 37 out of 41 states with sufficient data in 2015-16. That disconnect continued into high school, where black students made up 15 percent of high school students, but 9 percent of those enrolled in any Advanced Placement courses, incuding advanced math such as calculus.

“At each of these critical stages, black and Latino students have been locked out of advanced coursework opportunities,” said Kayla Patrick, the EdTrust’s pre-K-12 policy and data analyst, who conducted the group’s study. “And what’s really important is that each one of the opportunities opens up the door for the next, so they build on top of each other like blocks.”

But Morton’s current findings may help to explain why some high-profile initiatives, such as California’s former “algebra for all by 8th-grade” requirement, rolled out to mixed results. One study by Jian-Hua Liang, an education research and evaluation consultant at the California Department of Education found that California students who passed 8th-grade algebra in that state were not necessarily more likely to take and succeed in advanced math courses in high school, and a 2015 study tracking California’s algebra initiative found that higher enrollments in middle-school algebra were linked to drops in students’ scores on the state math test.

“A lot of times students, particularly students from disadvantaged populations, don’t even recognize that these courses are in fact gatekeeper courses,” Morton said. “It could be that a student in a predominantly black school is getting not as much algebra, but still getting an ‘A’ and then transitioning into high school.

“And so these students are at a disadvantage when they get to high school because they don’t have as much algebra under their belt. And guess what happens? They get to high school, they may be enrolled in a geometry course and they don’t have the foundation. And eventually, they don’t see the same favorable outcomes as their peers who are prepared,” Morton said. “So, yeah, [8th grade algebra] might be a gatekeeper, It might get you through the door, but then you may not continue. ... You fall through the cracks.”

Morton and her colleague controlled for the typical challenges: schools with fewer resources for curriculum materials; teachers with less math expertise or confidence in teaching the subject; students with little interest in math or poor math achievement coming into the class. But even when all those factors were controlled, majority-black schools still covered significantly less algebra content in their 8th grade classes than schools where black or Latino students made up a smaller share of the student body.

“At the end of the day, we as teachers make a committment to educating all children well. This is a wake-up call that we may not be doing that as well as we think we are,” she said.

Morton recommended that school and district leaders could help improve course equity by bringing together algebra teachers not just within schools, but across the district or beyond, to analyze different sections of courses and compare how much material they are covering, and how deeply.

Robert Berry III, a professor of math education at the University of Virginia and the immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said teachers need to look more closely at both what and how they are presenting material to different groups of students.

“If teachers have autonomy to emphasize certain things in courses, could that affect the kinds of tasks students are afforded? Are they just procedural in nature, or do students have tasks in problem-solving, reasoning, justification, and digging deeper,” he said. “This can matter as much as the content.”

EdTrust’s Patrick said that high schools can mitigate some opportunity gaps among students by automatically enrolling students in Advanced Placement math courses, rather than requiring prerequisites, but added that educators must be aware of potential differences in what concepts students have been exposed to and provide tutoring or other supports for students to thrive in challenging courses.

Photo: Crosby High School algebra teacher Jennifer Desiderio works with Lyndon Frederic, right, in her class in Waterbury, Conn. in 2019. Students in the Waterbury public school district are predominantly black and Hispanic; A new study suggests in schools where most students are black, as several are in the Waterbury school district, 8th grade algebra courses cover less algebra material than similar classes in majority-white schools, which can put students at a disadvantage when they reach high school math courses. Photo Source: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.