Pushing algebra for all students has failed to prepare low-achieving students for college, reports Education Week.
• An analysis using longitudinal statewide data on students in Arkansas and Texas found that, for the lowest-scoring 8th graders, even making it one course past Algebra 2 might not be enough to help them become “college and career ready” by the end of high school.
• An evaluation of the Chicago public schools’ efforts to boost algebra coursetaking found that, although more students completed the course by 9th grade as a result of the policy, failure rates increased, grades dropped slightly, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to attend college when they left the system.
Students with very poor math skills are “misplaced” in algebra classes, concluded Tom Loveless in a 2008 Brookings Institution paper.
“No one has figured out how to teach algebra to kids who are seven or eight years behind before they get to algebra, and teach it all in one year,” said Mr. Loveless, who favors interventions for struggling students at even earlier ages.
Algebra-for-all policies were a reaction to research showing that remedial math is a dead end, especially for low-income and minority students, while algebra is a “gateway” to advanced math classes and then to college.
But putting all students in the same math class seems to have held back the high achievers without doing much for the low achievers, says Elaine M. Allensworth of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
“Meanwhile, the kids who weren’t taking advanced classes before are taking them now,” she said, “but they’re not very engaged in them. They have high absence rates and low levels of learning.”
Some districts now are double-dosing, requiring low-scoring students to take a math “readiness” class at the same time they take algebra. In many schools, algebra teachers “spend a very large portion of that year on basic arithmetic,” said William Schmidt, a Michigan State education professor.
It seems obvious that schools should teach arithmetic in elementary school to give students a shot at learning algebra in eighth or ninth grade. Why isn’t this happening? And if detracking holds back the good students, frustrates the poor students and exhausts the teacher, why keep doing it?
Update: Students who worked in a computer lab on a pre-algebra and algebra learning program outscored similar students taught in a classroom, reports What Works Clearinghouse.