Mastering algebra is widely considered the gateway to higher mathematics and college readiness, but new studies question whether low-performing students benefit from exposure to the subject in middle school.
Separate studies of urban middle schoolers in California and in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools suggest that placing struggling math students in algebra class does not improve their test performance on state math tests, and significantly hurts their grade point averages and the likelihood of their taking and passing higher math courses in high school.
California has led the country in efforts to introduce algebra concepts in lower grades. In 2008, the state board of education included algebra as part of the 8th grade end-of-year math test, thus requiring all students to take algebra by the end of middle school.
While pushback from the state education department and teachers’ unions has meant the policy has not been fully implemented, it did increase the number of students taking Algebra 1 and pre-algebra in 8th grade, according to Don Taylor, an education consultant for the California education department, and Michael Kurlaender and Heather Rose, researchers at the University of California, Davis.
The three presented findings from a study of California’s early-algebra initiative during an April 15 session at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference here.
Nationwide, the proportion of students taking algebra in 8th grade nearly doubled, from 16 percent to 31 percent, from 1990 to 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and Mr. Taylor’s research. In California, however, algebra enrollment in that grade has more than tripled, from 16 percent of 8th graders taking algebra in 1990 to 54 percent in 2009, according to researchers.
The California researchers analyzed the coursetaking and math achievement of more than 22,000 students who started 7th grade between 2001 and 2004 in more than 20 schools in a large, unnamed urban district. They found that, for the nearly 2,400 students who performed in the lowest 10 percent on state math tests at the end of 7th grade, taking algebra in 8th grade had no significant effect on their state math-test performance at the end of 8th grade. And it caused their average GPAs to drop 7 percent, about the difference between a C and a C-minus.
“What we can see is there’s a potential harm to a low-performing student on the GPA,” said Mr. Taylor, the lead author of the study. “It’s pretty important. The grade point average [is what] parents pay attention to, teachers pay attention to—it’s actually more salient to the kids than math [state tests]. So there’s clearly academic harm in the short term.”