Assessment

Study: Middle School Algebra Push Yields Minimal Performance Gains

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 26, 2013 2 min read
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Many states are pushing students to take Algebra 1 in middle school to prepare them for advanced math in high school. A new analysis, however, suggests that increased enrollment hasn’t led to higher math performance for states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The study was released last week as part of the annual report on education by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington.

Brookings senior fellow Tom Loveless tracked the number of students taking the 8th grade NAEP between 1990 and 2011 who reported taking an advanced math class, which could mean Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, or an algebra course “stretched over two years.”

In 1990, only 16 percent of 8th graders enrolled in an algebra course, versus 81 percent in a more basic pre-algebra course. By 2011, fully 47 percent of 8th grade students reported taking Algebra 1 or higher math.

Between 2005 and 2011, 45 states boosted the number of 8th graders taking Algebra 1, with an average increase of 5.5 percent more of those students taking a math course at the level of Algebra 1 or higher.

Mr. Loveless found no connection, though, between increases in the number of 8th graders enrolled in Algebra 1 and states’ average NAEP math scores, even after controlling for changes in the states’ rates of children in poverty, English-language learners, and black and Hispanic students.

A recent analysis of high school coursework by the National Center for Education Statistics found that a majority of high school courses labeled Algebra 1 and Geometry cover a significant amount of more basic material.

Critics noted that the NCES study did not include data on 8th grade Algebra 1 and Geometry courses, even though one in five 2005 high school graduates had taken Algebra 1 in middle school. But the Brookings study suggests the high school pattern may hold in middle school math courses, too.

In states that did not increase their enrollments, students in 8th grade Algebra 1 courses performed, on average, 9.2 points better in 2011 than in 2005. In states with rising enrollments, by contrast, students in 8th grade Algebra 1 improved only 5.2 scale points during the same period.

“I think the Brookings study using state aggregated data confirms a lot of what NCES finds in our more detailed transcript analysis,” said NCES Commissioner Sean P. “Jack” Buckley.

Mr. Loveless said the study suggests that advanced math in middle school may be “watered down” as more students of different ability levels in math take the course.

“Algebra in 8th grade used to be reserved for gifted students; if you were a high flier in math, you were moved up,” he said. As taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade becomes the “new normal,” he said, gifted math students are being pushed to take the subject in 7th grade, and take a geometry course in 8th.

“It doesn’t matter what we do as the norm, there will be another class created for gifted [students],” Mr. Loveless said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Early-Algebra Push Found to Yield No NAEP Boost

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