California's Push for Algebra I in 8th Grade Has Had Mixed Results
February 18, 2011
According to 2010 statewide test data, since 2003 California schools have increased by 80% the number of students taking Algebra I in 8th grade. That change has been most dramatic among low-income, African American, and Latino students, many of whom did not previously have access to the course in the middle grades.
A new study from EdSource makes clear, however, that while the state's push to put students into Algebra I in 8th grade has opened up opportunities for many, it has also had some negative consequences. The analysis included almost 70,000 8th grade students from 303 California schools and 195 school districts. About a quarter of the students scored below basic or far below basic on the Grade 7 Mathematics CST, and of these students about three in ten were placed in Algebra I in 8th grade. The vast majority of these students scored below the basic level when they took the Algebra I CST.
The new analysis is a follow-up to a 2010 research project—Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades. Again working with research partners from Stanford University and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), EdSource has just released Improving Middle Grades Mathematics Performance. Its centerpiece is an analysis that used longitudinal student data to examine the relationship between students' 7th grade math scores on the California Standards Tests (CSTs), their 8th grade mathematics placements, and their subsequent performance on either the Algebra I CST or the General Mathematics CST.
The authors conclude that, for the state's most prepared math students (as measured by their 7th grade CST scores), placement into Algebra I in grade 8 appears to have served them well, with these students generally (but not always) scoring proficient or higher on the Algebra I CST. And smaller numbers of 8th graders beat the odds by scoring highly on the state's Algebra I test despite having relatively low prior-year CST scores.
However, placing all 8th graders into Algebra I, regardless of their preparation, sets up many students to fail. In the EdSource study sample, almost one third of students who scored at the two lowest levels on the state's 7th grade math test were placed into Algebra I in 8th grade—with almost no chance for success. Schools serving predominantly low-income students were more likely to make these types of placement decisions than schools serving predominantly middle-income students.
The specific findings:
- Eighth graders' incoming math preparation varied widely, yet many with low levels of preparedness were placed into a full Algebra I course.
- Schools serving mostly low-income students placed higher percentages of students into Algebra I than did schools serving mostly middle-income students.
- The most-prepared students typically took Algebra I in grade 8, and they generally scored proficient or higher on the Algebra I CST.
- Moderately prepared students, if placed in Algebra I, generally did not score proficient or higher on the Algebra I CST in 8th grade—though most scored at least basic.
- The least-prepared students, if placed in Algebra I, generally did not even score at the basic level.
In a policy and practice brief prepared by EdSource to accompany the study's release—Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance—the authors argue in favor of 8th grade mathematics placements that are more nuanced and better attuned to wide variations in student readiness. They call on school district leaders to take an active role facilitating schools' decisions about student placements and carefully evaluating the results of those decisions. The authors also call attention to a range of other local district and school practices—beyond placement—that correlate with higher student math achievement, other things being equal. Many of those were documented in EdSource's original Gaining Ground study.
The analysis can also inform California's implementation of the Common Core State Standards which were adopted by the State Board of Education last August. Along with a call for the state to provide districts with clear guidance about 8th grade math assessments and accountability for the next school year, the authors explain the implications of their findings for California's transition to the Common Core. They cite actions that could be taken by California's Legislature, public universities, State Board of Education, and Commission on Teacher Credentialing to strengthen the preparation of students to succeed in a college-preparatory curriculum in high school.
"California's gains in Algebra I course taking and success have raised expectations, particularly for low-income and minority students" said Matt Rosin, senior research associate at EdSource and a member of the study team. "California's middle grades educators should continue to widen appropriate access to challenging mathematics coursework. But in doing so, they need to build on a strong math foundation for students in earlier grades and base their placement decisions on a careful understanding of students' preparedness. The objective of giving more students the opportunity to complete Algebra I in 8th grade should not be achieved at the expense of a large proportion of students who would be better served by having more time to master key algebra concepts. Students who complete Algebra I in 9th grade can still graduate from high school having met or exceeded the a-g course requirements of the state's public universities."