Who gets into eighth-grade algebra? District policies do not guarantee equity, study shows

iStock_000016075406XSmallThere is growing pressure on schools to teach algebra to all eighth graders. A recent study in American Secondary Education is a reminder that access to eighth-grade algebra in districts is not always equitable when districts have policies about who qualifies to take the course.

The researcher, Frances R. Spielhagen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary, wanted to know: Who got access to eighth grade algebra? What background circumstances affected the district’s mathematics tracking policy? What difference did studying algebra in eighth grade make in student achievement and attainment?

She concludes that while schools cannot control the socioeconomic status of their populations, “They can control the delivery of services to those populations. Course taking is the most powerful factor affecting students’ achievement that is under the school’s control,” she says.

The  study found that students who enrolled in Grade 8 Algebra were better positioned to take advanced courses in high school and, indeed, stayed in mathematics longer.

The researcher examined the mathematics tracking policy in a large southeastern suburban school district where only some students had access to the study of algebra in eighth grade. Students were members of the district’s high school graduating class of 2002. For the study, Spielhagen examined the characteristics of more than 3,000 eighth-grade students in the district.

In the district, students were tested in sixth grade to predict readiness for algebra with a local instrument developed by teachers. Students who successfully completed seventh grade honors level mathematics advanced to Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Other students took Mathematics 8 in eighth grade.

What Spielhagen found was that the selection system was skewed at an early age. In third grade, some students were referred to enriched mathematics instruction, but not all elementary schools offered this. Some, but not all, elementary schools in the district ask teachers to select students for specific enriched mathematics experiences in problem solving, which lay the groundwork for student performance on tests that determine entrance into eighth grade algebra.

Inconsistent use of prognosis test

Spielhagen also found that the identification process in seventh grade was skewed by inconsistent use of the district’s official teacher-constructed algebra prognosis test, which was given only to students already in the advanced track. Over the past decade, teachers said they abandoned the prognosis test because it was outdated; they relied instead on their own subjective judgments. The district policy provided no selection criteria for students not already in the enriched math program, automatically precluding those students from Grade 8 Algebra.

The researcher identified parent influence as another factor skewing the selection process for Grade 8 Algebra. According to the research, parents frequently overrode the district’s placement of students in the non-algebra track in many schools, particularly in those schools with higher socioeconomic status. Parents of students in schools attracting more lower-income children did not often question a child’s placement, teachers reported.

Importantly, students who gained access because of parental influence, ultimately succeeded, although some teachers reported some frustration with students’ lack of readiness. But the vast majority passed the state examination in algebra.

The study examined student achievement with the aid of three specific outcome measures:

  • the state-standardized test in Algebra 1   (taken at the end of the algebra course in  either the eighth or ninth grade);
  • pre-placement (seventh grade) Stanford 9 mathematics score; and
  • post eighth grade Stanford 9 test scores. Not surprisingly, students in eighth-grade algebra scored higher on all measures than their peers who took Mathematics 8. But, on the state algebra test there was significant overlap between the scores of the groups at the lower range of algebra and the higher range of Mathematics 8.

“Lower end performance among students in the Grade 8 Algebra group was the same as that of upper-end performance of students who were not in the early algebra group,” according to the study.

“Restricting access to Grade 8 Algebra in this district did not increase achievement among students in either of the two tracking groups,” the author concludes. Stanford 9 tests for both treatment groups remained relatively the same in tests before and after eighth grade. She notes that “…the overlap of achievement on the state algebra test in the two groups suggests that the tracking policy prevents some students from taking grade 8 algebra who might have succeeded and derived benefit from that experience.”

Connection to advanced coursework

The researcher confirms the significant benefits for students taking algebra in the eighth grade. Some 77% of students who took algebra in grade 8 were in advanced math classes in 11th grade, including trigonometry/mathematics analysis (41%) mathematics analysis (26%), and trigonometry/advanced algebra (10%). In contrast, 62% of  the students in non-algebra in grade 8 were in Algebra 2 in 11th grade.

“Closing the Achievement Gap in Math: Considering Eighth Grade Algebra for all Students,” by Frances R. Spielhagen, American Secondary Education, Summer 2006, Volume 34, Number 3, pps. 29-41.

Published in ERN, October 2006, Volume 19, Number 6

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