Algebra Lite?

California expects all students to take algebra in eighth grade, though only about half actually do. Under pressure from the feds to give the same math test to eighth graders, the state board of education, which meets today, could adopt an Algebra Lite test that would undercut the stronger students and frustrate the kids who haven’t taken algebra yet. John Fensterwald explains on the Merc’s Educated Guess:

What’s forcing the board’s hand is that the federal Department of Education under Secretary Margaret Spellings has finally noticed that the state is out of compliance with No Child Left Behind. The law requires that states adopt content-specific standards in math and test students’ knowledge of them.

California does that for grades three through seven. But in eighth grade, some students take Algebra I and are tested on it, while others take General Math, which tests sixth and seventh grade standards. So the feds are saying to California, “We don’t care what you choose, but pick one and test to it.”

Former education secretaries and state board presidents are pushing to keep the algebra standard from being watered down. The number of eighth graders taking algebra rose from one third to one half because of the standard — and because schools get a boost in their state ranking if students take algebra in eighth grade. The pressure to improve K-7 math teaching will be eased if teaching real algebra is shoved back into high school. It’s too soon to give up on negotiating for a federal waiver.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters explains the history of the algebra fight.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne wrote: “schools get a boost in their state ranking if students take algebra in eighth grade”


    There’s this weird thing going on here in CA w/r/t 8th grade Algebra. In terms of API, an 8th grader taking general math gets docked a quintile in the performance calculations. So an 8th grader scoring Proficient (4) gets put into the machine as scoring Basic (3). But in terms of AYP, that Proficient still counts as Proficient, because the national system doesn’t make the distinction. So, you may take an API hit, but you’ll keep up with AYP. Perhaps this is changing. The current situation gives schools leeway to give kids the instruction commensurate with their academic profiles, because a kid scoring 3-5 on the General Math CST is still better than a kid dropping a Far Below Basic (1) on the Algebra CST.

    Folks in my District rushed tons of kids into 8th grade Algebra who weren’t even close to ready, and those kids predictably learned little and performed like it, scoring Below Basic and Far Below Basic in f-ing droves — about 80 percent. The solution, as always, is to understand the accountability systems, but to provide the level of instruction dictated by students’ academic needs, and not arbitrary distinctions or external pressures.

  2. IT’s absurd to put most kids (80%) in algebra in 8th grade. Absolutely insane.

  3. We homeschool, and this year we added my 13-year-old nephew to the mix.

    Unfortunately, because he’s gone through the school system, he was never allowed to perform to his level. So he was doing a lower level math (grade 7) than my 10-year-old (grade 8). I didn’t want to start him on the same textbook as Katie next year, so I decided to make him go through two years of textbooks in the three months that we had him.

    And he did it. He breezed through Beginning Algebra, and he’ll be doing high school algebra next year.

    The problem isn’t that students aren’t ready in grade 8. Many are. The problem is that you can’t teach it to them in a class of 25 kids. One-on-one it’s no problem. Even my 10-year-old is doing beginning algebra.

    Get any kid one-on-one and you could probably move them two grade levels ahead in less than a year. We certainly did that with my nephew, whose scores were dropping in regular school because he was so bored.

    So the problem isn’t the kids. It’s the whole system. We weren’t meant to learn in groups like that. What a waste.

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  4. Regarding whether it is “insane” to put 80% in Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Ten plus years ago Japan did it with essentially their whole cohort — something in the mid 90 percent range. I have no information how they did since then. Singapore does it to essentially the whole cohort right now; and they have a highly diverse ethnic student population. Incidentally, they do it with 100% non-native English speakers, in an English-based education system.

    Why can’t we do it? Are our genes worse in some way?

  5. Reality Czech says:

    It is possible to teach algebra to a class of 25 7th graders. That is how I learned it.

  6. I have never understood the advantage of early Algebra. Unless the kid is going to take Calculus in high school I do not understand the benefit. Long ago when I went to school I would have had to pass AP Calculus with a five to get college credit. The kids with high school Calculus in my college Calculus class had just as much trouble as I did. Shouldn’t we just push early Algebra on the ones who may be going to first tier colleges?

  7. let’s translate that question, gbl3rd.

    shouldn’t we just select who will be headed for college in the 8th grade?
    shouldn’t we just derail kids off the college track in 8th grade?

  8. Chris,

    What is the benefit of early Algebra for the students?

    Not taking Algebra in the 8th grade does not derail kids off the college track. It might derail them from some top tier colleges. How many colleges require Algebra in the 8th grade? How many colleges require Calculus in high school to be considered for admission?

    In Europe, don’t they derail them from the college track at much younger age?

  9. here’s a good discussion of the math requirements

    points 7, 9 & 10 illustrate the gatekeeper role that geometry plays in the freshman year: it’s hard to get to calculus starting with algebra in the freshman year algebra + geometry + adv algebra + precalc/trig + calc = 5 years — but as you point out, it’s not always required.

    7. Traditionally, most entering college freshmen have taken pre-calculus and often calculus; however, other advanced courses such as statistics and discrete mathematics can also deepen students’ understanding of mathematics.

    9. Students who take calculus in high school are encouraged to take one of the Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus Examinations in order to place out of the comparable college calculus course.

    10. College prep courses in mathematics taken in 7th and 8th grades with grades of “C” or higher may be counted toward the subject requirement.

  10. Chris,

    I agree with you about high school math being a gatekeeper for college. The reason I question the need for 5 years of pre-college math is a lot of people think a lot of the best colleges require Calculus on their transcript and that is not true. Schools like MIT and Cal Tech do, but the ones that are not as techincally oriented or as selective do not. Maybe this is just part of an arms race to look better in the admisions process.