The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra

Ben Hoffman

Tom Loveless
Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution
September 2008

This study considers the consequences of more students taking advanced math courses in high school--and their prerequisite, algebra, in eighth grade. Pushing students to take more advanced classes was intended to increase poor and minority youngsters' math skills and equalize access to higher level classes; Tom Loveless finds, however, that these initiatives did more damage than good. Poor preparation in younger grades has meant that algebra retains only appellative vestiges of its former self. Loveless examines the lowest tenth of scorers on the 2007 eighth grade math NAEP and finds that over 28 percent of them were enrolled in algebra, compared with just 8 percent in 2000. So why the low scores? These students, overwhelmingly poor blacks or Hispanics at large urban schools, were woefully unprepared for anything resembling algebra; in fact, they averaged well below a fourth-grade math level. Their misplacement means that teachers, even "algebra teachers", must increasingly focus on basic skills remediation at the expense of the intended curriculum and the students who are ready for it. No wonder that while eighth grade math scores have generally risen since 2000, the scores of those in advanced classes have actually declined. Poor students of color deserve equal access to high level math courses. But, as Loveless rightly argues, we need to improve math testing, instruction, and accountability at the elementary level first so that students can succeed in them. The report is here.

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