8th-grade algebra for all may be fair, but doesn’t lift math achievement

6352465915_319953b7a9The modern twist to the Hoover promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” might be “and an algebra textbook in the pack of every 8th-grader.”

But, a new Brookings Institution report questions whether many 8th-graders in algebra classes as part of a national push to get more students in advanced math classes earlier are learning anything at all about math.

“The push for universal eighth-grade algebra is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence,” writes researcher Tom Loveless in “The Misplaced Student,” which is part of The Brown Center Report on American Education released in February.

“Will policies mandating algebra for all eighth graders mean that the nation’s students learn more math? Not necessarily,” he writes.

The Brown Center Report analyzed 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to examine the effect of growing 8th-grade enrollment in advanced math on overall math achievement. The researcher found that :

  • States with high percentages of 8th-grade students in advanced math classes rank no higher in statewide NAEP scores than states with lower percentages of students in these classes.
  • 8th-graders who are taking advanced math courses seem to be losing ground in math rather than gaining compared to the average student.
  • Enrollment in advanced math classes by the bottom 10% of students (based on NAEP scores) has increased from 8% in 2000 to 28.6% in 2005.
  • These “misplaced students” function about 7 grade levels below peers enrolled in the same courses.

NAEP state rankings

With 51% of its 8th-graders in advanced math, the District of Columbia could be expected to have one of the top scores in national math tests compared with other states, according to Loveless. But, the District ranks last among states in 8th-grade NAEP math scores.

The national average of 8th-graders enrolled in advanced math is 38%, according to the report. Besides the District of Columbia, other states with high percentages of students in advanced math also ranked no better in NAEP scores than states with lower percentages of students taking advanced math.

Massachusetts, with 45% of its 8th-graders enrolled in advanced math, has an 8th-grade NAEP score of 298 and ranks number 1. However, California, with 59% of students in advanced math, ranks 45th and Vermont with only 26% of students enrolled in advanced math ranks 4th.

An even more interesting pattern than state rankings, Loveless writes, is that 8th-graders who are taking advanced math courses seem to be losing ground in math. Going against the general trend, their NAEP scores have declined from 299 in 2000 to 295 in 2007.

“The national average in eighth-grade math has been rising steadily, increasing by 8 points from 2000 to 2007, from 273 to 281. But one group stands out for not participating in the score increase–eighth graders in advanced classes,” Loveless writes.

“The typical eighth grader knows more math today than in 2000,” he writes. “But the typical eighth grader in an advanced match course knows less.”

As enrollment in more advanced math classes has increased, enrollment in basic math classes has decreased. Unfortunately, Loveless says, many of the students who have made the shift from basic math classes to algebra and geometry classes are poor math students based on their performance on NAEP.

There are about 120,000 “misplaced math students”, according to the report. These are students who scored in the bottom 10% on the NAEP but are enrolled in advanced math classes. Their enrollment in advanced math classes has ballooned from 8% in 2000 to 28.6% in 2005.

“Low achievers more than doubled as a proportion of advanced classes, increasing from 3.0 percent in 2000 to 7.8 percent in 2000,” the researcher writes. “Although appearing to be trivial, this small percentage adds up to approximately 120,000 students nationwide, a number that is growing and a phenomenon that, until now, has been viewed as an accomplishment, not a cause for worry.”

How far behind are misplaced students, Loveless asks. The average NAEP score for 8th-graders in advanced math classes in 291 while the misplaced 8th-graders score is 211. Loveless calculates that, based on the NAEP scores for 4th graders which is 238, misplaced students are performing at a 2nd-grade level.

“Advanced students score about 1 year above grade level,” the study says. “The misplaced students function about 7 grade levels below peers enrolled in the same courses.”

Misplaced students are more likely to come from poor families, according to the report: 69.8% qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. This is more than double the percentage for students in advanced classes (30.4%). They are also mostly black and Hispanic, about 77% vs. 32.3% of all 8th-graders nationwide. Only 20% report that their mothers graduated from college.

No social benefit

Misplaced math students are more likely to attend a large, urban school that does not track math classes with the result that these classes serve a much wider range of math abilities than the typical 8th-grade class. Their teachers are less experienced, less credentialed and less well-prepared in math training than the typical teacher of advanced math, the report says.

“No social benefit is produced by placing students in classes for which they are unprepared,” the study says. “Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any educational benefit accruing to these students.” This does not just apply to the students in the 10th percentile or below.

“Are students at the 20th, 30th, or 40th percentiles on NAEP adequately prepared for algebra? According to Loveless, “They, too, function significantly below grade level in mathematics, and by including them in the pool of misplaced math students, the numbers skyrocket.”

“How Well Are American Students Learning,” by Tom Loveless, The 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education, The Brookings Institution, January 2009. The report may be accessed at: http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2007/1211_education_loveless.aspx

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