Algebra II isn’t what it used to be

Passing Algebra II no longer shows mastery of algebra or preparation for college math, concludes a new Brown Center report, The Algebra Imperative.

“Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades,” writes researcher Tom Loveless.

In 1986, less than half of white 17 year-olds and less than a third of blacks and Hispanics had completed Algebra II. That’s up to 79 percent for whites and 69 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But “getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory,” Loveless writes.  “As enrollments boomed, test scores went down.”  

Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17 Year-Olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra (1986-2012)

“More and more unprepared students are being pushed into advanced math in middle school,” Loveless writes. In some cases, eighth graders with second- and third-grade math skills are placed in algebra classes.

A study out of California found that marginal math students who spent one more year before tackling Algebra I were 69% more likely to pass the algebra end of course exam in 9th grade than ninth grade peers who were taking the course for the second time after failing the algebra test in 8th grade.

. . . A study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor found that low achievers who took 8th grade algebra experienced negative long term effects, including lower pass rates in Geometry and Algebra II.

It’s not just algebra either. “There is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told Education Week.

About Joanne


  1. Are the kids who would have taken Algebra II in 1986 being harmed by the push for “algebra for all”? Do the lower scores reflect lower scores at the top, or is that cohort doing as well as it did in 1986?

  2. Sometimes it seems as if modern education has become a farce.

    • Jim,

      I’d agree 100%, exactly what are workers of tomorrow
      learning in public schools? Given the excessive amount
      of remedial coursework that freshmen who entered
      college directly from high school now have to complete
      just so they can actually take coursework which will
      give them a shot at being admitted to a given major is
      at an all-time high…


  3. Alg 2 does not include the same topics that it did in the early 80s. Half of it seems to be material that was done in Alg 1 in the past. Get out your 80s Dolciani texts and compare to the current objectives for A1 and A2.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      But calculus is still calculus. Where do the old algebra 2 topics get taught?

      • Like parametric equations and conics, analytic geometry? Probably stuffed into pre-Calc; if you’re lucky.

        • Actually, at many schools there are 2 tracks of Algebra II, with two different books. So, they look the same on the transcript, but…. the upper level kids get actual algebra II, and the lower level kids get “Algebra I, part II.”

          Of course, there’s no way for a college or employer to tell what flavor of Algebra II a kid actually took, and it all looks the same in stats, so the achievement gap is closed!

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            But wouldn’t the two courses have different designations, the “actual Algebra II” being called something like Honors and the “Algebra 1, Part II” being called, say, College Prep? Admittedly, that’s not accurate, but wouldn’t colleges realize that it’s just normal feel-good dishonesty and discount students’ grades accordingly?

          • Roger– not necessarily— because sometimes the ‘sorting’ happens at the guidance counselor level, not the transcript level. So.. “You should take the second period honors Algebra 2 class… you’ll like it much better than the fourth period honors Algebra 2 class.”

            This sort of steering makes the statistics come out right for the bean counters, but results in two vastly different classes looking the same on transcripts.

            Of course, most colleges want SAT-II scores, so it’s mostly employers who get screwed since if you hire a “High School Graduate” it’s totally unclear what they graduated with…

            Which is probably why we have credential creep… because the colleges DO have ways to differentiate between real Algebra II and fake Algebra II

          • I am in NY. The Regent’s objectives for Alg 2 are included in all sections, whether the course is honors or regent’s level. An honors course (which my district does not offer but nearby districts do) would have more challenging problems and maybe more units.Typically we see that a nonhonors course shorts the prob&stats material.

            The material that was included in Alg 2 in the 80s is now in precalc or college algebra. some of the material that was in precalc or math analysis in the 80s is just plain omitted — matrices for example.

        • Barry Garelick says:

          Yes, analytic geom, parametrics and conics are in pre-calc as they were when I was in high school in the 60’s.

          • Where does pre-calc fit in a sequence that gets one to calculus in senior year of high school? Where I went in the early 80s, the sequence was: algebra, geometry, algebra-2, trig, calculus. If you took algebra in 8th grade, you were on track for calculus in 12th. If you shim pre-calc between trig and calculus, then you’d need algebra in 7th grade … which isn’t super common.

        • Mark: We’re probably getting lost in definitions. Pre-Calc & Trig overlap pretty highly in the places I’m familiar with. So you’d see Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II; then your fourth year would be Pre-Calc or “Trig and Pre-Calc”, maybe Trig with Analytic Geometry or some mash-up if you’re on the calc track for college. Maybe you’d have a semester of Trig and another of Pre-Calc. I don’t see why you’d need more than 3 units of math past Algebra I to get to Calc. You’d basically be in Algebra I at 8th grade if you wanted a Calc experience in high school. I suppose if you were motivated, you could mash Geometry and Algebra II together; the actual direct usage of geometry in Algebra II books I’ve taught is fairly slim.

          In the bad old days, I went through the New York Regents Course I,II,III; and then to Calc. It worked OK, but integrated math programs don’t seem so popular now; but that might just be my limited experience.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            A lot of places also have Algebra 2/trig as one course.

            My HS also had an accelerated track that went: Geometry, Algebra II/Trig/ Precalc (3 semester course), Calculus— and then you could choose to take either advanced calculus or math electives if you had time left over . (Statistics was very popular.)

            There was also a super-advanced track: Geometry, Functions (AlgebraII/Trig/Precalc in a single year) Calc I, Calc 2. And for kids who took Algebra in 7th grade, there was a track that included an on-site course past Calc 2 taught by professors from the state college….

            Actually, I was disturbed to see that CCSI actually moves away from having kids on track to take Calculus in HS. Not because everyone needs to, but because an 8th grader doesn’t know what she’ll want to do in college…. and if you encourage kids to AVOID the calculus track, you’re locking them out of certain majors and careers….

          • The sequence here for those who take Algebra 1 in 8th is:
            Regents Integrated A1, R. I. Geo, R.I. A2/Trig, one semester of College Algebra, one semester of Trig, one semester of Calc 1and one semester of Calc 2. Those who had difficulty with the pacing in R.I. A2/T will take a year of Pre-Calc then a year long version of Calc 1.

            Our experience is that College Algebra and Trig are really slow courses that could be compressed into one semester if the student is a good math student, but that option isn’t available here.

  4. I’ll also note that Regent’s Algebra 2 is the only fast -paced Regent’s math course — meaning the pacing is what was offered in the 80s In Alg 1 and Geo, before it was watered down.