Access to Algebra 1 in 8th Grade; the Never-ending Story

“When students take Algebra I matters, but many students do not have early access.”
The Department is encouraging both access to and enrollment in STEM courses. Both aspects are important because, as we will see through the story, even where access to Algebra I classes are available students do not necessarily enroll in them.
The story is mostly grounded in civil rights issues and equity for all, but ignores a key factor in all this: Proponents of the Common Core math standards take a “Common Core wanted it this way” attitude, citing that the standards call for algebra in high school, but not in eighth grade. They take this stance despite Common Core allowing for such option as addresed in the Appendix to the math standards:
A “compacted” version of the Traditional pathway where no content is omitted, in which students would complete the content of 7th grade, 8th grade, and the High School Algebra I course in grades 7 (Compacted 7th Grade) and 8 (8th Grade Algebra I), which will enable them to reach Calculus or other college level courses by their senior year. While the K-7 CCSS effectively prepare students for algebra in 8th grade, some standards from 8th grade have been placed in the Accelerated 7th Grade course to make the 8th Grade Algebra I course more manageable;
But such words do not matter. Algebra continues to be the forbidden fruit of education, reserved for those whose parents can afford to have their kids learn it outside of school–or have enough clout to get their kids in to 8th grade algebra programs when they are offered.  As I wrote about here, the San Francisco school district  did away with algebra in 8th grade. Jo Boaler and Alan Schoenfeld wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, lauding this decision, and stating:
They  (i.e., San Francisco USD) found a unique balance that is now seen as a national model. They decided to challenge students earlier with depth and rigor in middle school. All students in the district take Common Core Math 6, 7 and 8, a robust foundation that allows them to be more successful in advanced math courses in high school.  
Again, an example of an inflexible interpretation of the Common Core Math Standards. And as I discussed in the referenced post, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District limits access to algebra in 8th grade by making it available to the “truly gifted”–a term that went undefined and which I heard  uttered by an official of that school district.  They determine the “truly gifted” by requiring students to receive high scores on two tests given in the 7th grade.  One test has been around for a while–a multiple choice test developed by two universities that did a good job in determining the students who were ready for algebra. 
With the advent of Common Core, the District decided to institute a second test, developed by an outfit called the Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI). The test consisted of questions that in my opinion, were appropriate for formative assessments but not for summative. It did the job, however, and many students were suddenly deemed unqualified (i.e., not “truly gifted”) to take algebra 1 in eighth grade. (Assuming that one has to be “gifted” in order to take algebra in eighth grade; I do not believe giftedness is a necessity for it.)  In the 2015-16 school year only 17% of students took algebra in 8th grade: 88 out of 517, down from about 300 students in 2013.
The report from the Dept of Education is timely.  It is correct that civil rights issues are important, I think the problem goes beyond civil rights. Namely, one no longer needs to be in a minority to be stuck with inferior programs and goals.

4 thoughts on “Access to Algebra 1 in 8th Grade; the Never-ending Story

  1. “Namely, one no longer needs to be in a minority to be stuck with inferior programs and goals.”

    Exactly!. When our non-urban middle school finally (!) got rid of CMP with no real algebra in 8th grade, they brought in Glencoe Pre-Algebra and Algebra I courses in 7th and 8th grades. This happened because parents complained that the school did not offer a proper curriculum sequence to advanced placement in math and languages in high school. This is still a problem because our lower schools use Everyday Math. Students and parents still feel like they have been hit in the head with a brick when they don’t get into Pre-Algebra in 7th grade even though they have “distinguished” grades on their yearly math assessment.

    The ploy in many school districts is to now push algebra I for all to 9th grade, but create some phony and magic (Pre-AP) acceleration to calculus in high school that requires doubling up in math. They do this with no proof that it works without outside help.

    I understand what happened, and it’s a limitation in the report that Barry points to. Although Algebra I (in 8th grade) is a key turning point towards proficiency in advanced math classes, it cannot just be dropped into a math sequence after curricula like Everyday Math TERC. That failed. Their solution is to claim that Common Core is now a proper preparation as long as algebra is pushed back to 9th grade. This solution just moves the problem to a point where they can better blame the kids. It fails at both ends – (K-8) and 10-12 grades. Common Core is a slope from Kindergarten to no remediation in College Algebra at the end of high school. If they drop in a proper algebra course in the sequence before then without proper preparation, then it will fail also. No college or STEM program ever asks for your state assessment test scores.

    This is also not just about STEM. Back when I taught college math and CS (in a math department), we saw many students who had to change majors because they couldn’t handle the required math classes. This even happened to nursing students who couldn’t handle a proper statistics course. What is needed is a complete list of majors and what level of math is needed. This is not just a STEM issue. Schools need to offer remediation/advancement opportunities for each grade. When kids in 7th grade say they want to become marine biologists, they need to know exactly what is expected of them in school.

    So what happens when K-6 (fake) Differentiated Instruction hits no algebra in 8th grade followed by multi-levels in high school. It makes no sense to the most casual observer and I haven’t even gotten to their time wasting hands-on group work in class that assumes that engagement solves everything – puts the onus and blame on the students and absolves teachers and schools of all but the lowest level of expectations..


    • Exactly right, Richard. Bad as it is to deny students who are prepared for algebra the right to enroll in it, a much worse problem is such a large percentage who should be prepared and are not because of the same misconceptions in the earlier grades. Harmful as this is to children from affluent, educated communities, many of these students have compensating opportunities. Students from underprivileged communities have no such and the results are disastrous.


  2. I would never have survived “doubling up” on math classes in high school, because I’m not gifted in math and have always needed to take it in manageable chunks. But fortunately for me, our school system had the possibility of acceleration in grades 6 and 7, so that we could take Algebra I in 8th. Students did not have to be gifted to take Algebra 1 in 8th, we just had to be bright and attentive. What a concept.


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