Talented Students Are Kept From Early Algebra. Should States Force Schools to Enroll Them?

One California family had a tough choice to make.

Julie Lynem’s son had taken algebra in eighth grade, but hadn’t comprehended some of the core concepts. That left the family to decide whether to make him repeat the class in ninth grade — and potentially disadvantage him by preventing him from taking calculus later in high school — or to have him push through.

“After a family discussion, we decided he would repeat Algebra 1 in ninth grade,” Lynem, a journalism lecturer, wrote in CalMatters. They hoped it would increase his confidence and mastery, she wrote. When he later won an achievement award in math, Lynem determined that the decision had been a good one.

The state around her is grappling with similar questions.

Last July, California adopted a new K-12 math framework. Proponents believe that the framework provides greater flexibility in math paths, while also stressing an inquiry-based approach that will encourage more students to go further in math. California’s framework has also been fiercely criticized for placing a “reform agenda” over rigorous standards.

Perhaps most controversial was its treatment of algebra. In the final version, the framework recommends starting algebra in ninth grade for most students, which many worry will make students less competitive for college or push some students away from science careers. The move was partly based on San Francisco public schools, which had delayed algebra until high school for all students in a high-profile experiment. Recently, though, the city has changed course amid parental pressure.

California is trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Algebra has long been considered a “gateway” to higher math. But there’s a lot of variation in how schools decide who’s ready for algebra, leading to fewer low-income students, rural students or English learners taking this course in middle school. This pattern has left districts searching for new models.

For some researchers, California misstepped. And at least one researcher hopes that a shift toward a “more nuanced” model built on proven student aptitude will win out.

Stuck in Reverse

The old way of slotting students into algebra has reinforced disparities. Relying on teacher recommendations or parent advocacy to decide which students are ready, many schools have not been able to get enough talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds into seats in algebra classrooms. That’s why low-income, Black, Hispanic, Native American and rural students — and growing populations such as English learners — have less, or just slower, access to algebra. Getting into algebra early is thought to improve college attractiveness, and the course is often a high school graduation requirement.

It’s a phenomenon researchers are painfully aware of.

The current system is working disproportionately well for an increasingly shrinking portion of the population, says Scott Peters, the director of research consulting partnerships at NWEA. In other words, math placements most often fail for the parts of the American population that are growing the fastest. It’s an inefficiency in the education system, leaving talent on the table, he says, adding: “Doing nothing is going backward.”

The assessment and research organization NWEA, Peters’ organization, recently released guidance for schools to better identify when students are prepared to take algebra, in the hopes of encouraging schools to use “universally administered” data points when making math placements. Using data points that limit subjective factors — such as teacher impression or parental advocacy — when deciding whether a student is prepared for algebra lowers the likelihood that a student will be put into algebra too soon or too late, according to this argument. The guidance is connected to MAP Growth, one of the organization’s assessments.

The Right to Perform Algebra

The idea of standardizing aspects of American math education has been floating around.

When the latest scores for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, seemed to show Utah had outperformed other U.S. states, Lindsey Henderson, a secondary mathematics specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, credited the state’s scores in part to the state’s integrated secondary math curriculum mandate. Others, in interpreting the results, highlighted the lack of a national math curriculum as a reason for the country’s lagging performance internationally.

That might have some relevance to algebra readiness, according to Peters. But tackling these problems requires nuance and the ability to strike a balance in how states are standardized, he says.

Districts that try to flatten the racial disparities by having all eighth graders take algebra are applying standardization in the wrong direction, Peters argues. Not all students are ready for algebra in middle school, and so this can lead to “massive failure rates,” he says.

But then, there are districts that go the other way, only allowing the highest-achieving students to take early algebra. In these, “you have to be Albert Einstein to get placed in slightly advanced math, like so overkill that it’s ridiculous,” Peters says.

These approaches both seek to force students into algebra or out of it. “Both have been tried and both are stupid,” he adds.

Peters’ proposed better models of standardization: automatic enrollments based on demonstrated aptitude, also known as “opt-out” policies. In these systems, students are automatically enrolled in algebra — unless they choose to opt out — after they achieve high scores on standard tests. That’s where Peters hopes his guidelines will help, pointing districts to embrace broad standards.

There are some examples of this model in practice now. In 2018, Ohio adopted one such policy. So now, when a student in the state scores higher than the 95 percentile on standardized achievement tests like the TerraNova, they are automatically labeled as “gifted.” These students can access advanced math classes, and schools also have to send reports about who they are classifying as “gifted” to the state’s department of education.

In the last five years, other states — including Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Illinois and Texas — have adopted some version of automatic enrollment policies. The legislatures in these states have elected to force schools to make algebra available to students who have demonstrated readiness by scoring highly on state tests.

Some view it as a stealth “bipartisan” option for recalculating algebra, reducing disparities without relying on contentious reform approaches. North Carolina, which passed a version of this in 2018, released a review of its program that suggested it’s had some success. While it didn’t fully eliminate disparities, the state’s review of the program’s effect reported that: “Most of North Carolina’s mathematically talented students are taking advanced math courses in their public schools, and the percentage of such students has increased each year.”

Ultimately, for Peters, that’s the path with the most promise. It removes the kind of discretion that tends to correlate with resources and segregation, Peters argues. Yet, it also doesn’t just fling students who might not be ready into difficult math.

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