Fast-Tracking Into Algebra Leaves Many Eighth-Graders ‘Misplaced’

Libby Quaid, AP, September 22, 2008

More kids than ever are taking algebra in eighth grade but not necessarily learning more math, private researchers report.

In fact, while eighth-graders are doing better on national math tests, students in advanced classes are faring worse, according to the study being released today by the Brookings Institution.

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The study takes a provocative look at a subject many people view as a matter of racial equality. Once unavailable to many minority and poor children, algebra is becoming widely accepted as a must-have for eighth-graders.

Algebra is considered a “gateway” course for higher learning. Students who take it that year are on track for calculus as seniors. President Clinton made eighth-grade algebra a priority, and an influential 1995 book labeled algebra “The New Civil Right.”

Enrollment doubled from 1990 to 2007, when nearly one-third of all eighth-graders were taking algebra. In July, California decided that all eighth-graders should take algebra; Minnesota did so in 2006.

But the study says many kids sitting in algebra class are unprepared. Eighth-grade math scores have dropped for algebra students even as overall scores have improved.

The study was based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card. {snip}

In particular, the report looked at low-achieving students. Among the findings:

o Enrollment of low achievers—scoring in the bottom 10 percent—has more than doubled in eighth-grade algebra.

o The overwhelming number of low-achieving students are black and Hispanic and attend big urban, high-poverty schools where they are more likely to fall through the cracks.

o Teachers of low achievers have less experience, fewer formal credentials and weaker math training.

The study is alarming to some advocates who worry its focus will add to an argument that minority and low-income kids should not take the class. The report’s title is “The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra.”

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