The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra

September 22, 2008


The following is a special advanced release of a Brown Center report on eighth grade algebra levels.  The full report will be published in February 2009. 

Algebra in eighth grade was once reserved for the mathematically gifted student. In 1990, very few eighth graders, about one out of six, were enrolled in an algebra course. As the decade unfolded, leaders began urging schools to increase that number. President Clinton lamented, “Around the world, middle students are learning algebra and geometry. Here at home, just a quarter of all students take algebra before high school.”1 The administration made enrolling all children in an algebra course by eighth grade a national goal. In a handbook offering advice to middle school students on how to plan for college, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley urged, “Take algebra beginning in the eighth grade and build from there.”2 Robert Moses ratcheted up the significance of the issue by labeling algebra “The New Civil Right,” thereby highlighting the social consequences of so many poor and minority students taking remedial and general math courses instead of algebra.3

The campaign was incredibly successful. Several urban school districts declared a goal of algebra for all eighth graders. In 1996, the District of Columbia led the nation with 53 percent of eighth graders enrolled in algebra. From 1990 to 2000, national enrollment in algebra courses soared from 16 percent to 24 percent of all eighth graders.

The surge continued into the next decade. Eighth-grade enrollment in algebra hit 31 percent nationally in 2007, a near doubling of the 1990 proportion. Today more U.S. eighth graders take algebra than any other math course.4 In July 2008, the State of California decided to adopt an algebra test as its eighth-grade assessment of student proficiency. The policy in effect mandates that all eighth graders will be enrolled in algebra by 2011.

At first glance, this appears to be good news. Transcript studies indicate that 83 percent of students who take geometry in ninth grade, most of whom completed algebra in eighth grade, complete calculus or another advanced math course during high school.5 Research also suggests that students who take algebra earlier rather than later subsequently have higher math skills.6 These findings, however, are clouded by selection effects—by the presence of unmeasured factors influencing who takes algebra early and who takes it late. Schools routinely assign incoming eighth graders to math courses based on how much math students already know. Moreover, it is no surprise that excellent math students want to take the most challenging math courses available to them and that low-achieving students avoid these courses as long as possible. Whether algebra for eighth graders is a good idea, especially for those who have not learned basic arithmetic, cannot be concluded from existing evidence. Studies that test for causality, such as experiments with random assignment of students to treatment and control groups, have not been conducted.

The push for universal eighth-grade algebra is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence. General or remedial math courses tend to be curricular dead-ends, leading to more courses with the same title (for example, General Math 9, General Math 10) and no real progression in mathematical content. By completing algebra in eighth grade—and then completing a sequence of geometry as freshmen, advanced algebra as sophomores, and trigonometry, math analysis, or pre-calculus as juniors—students are able to take calculus in the senior year of high school. Waiting until ninth grade to take algebra makes taking calculus in high school more difficult. From this point of view, expanding eighth-grade algebra to include all students opens up opportunities for advancement to students who previously had not been afforded them, in particular, students of color and from poor families. Democratizing eighth-grade algebra promotes social justice.

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1 Remarks by President Clinton, Education Roundtable, Springbrook High School, Silver Spring, Md., March 16, 1998. Available at html.
2 Quoted in Matthew Bowers, “Virginia and the U.S. are Improving Slightly at Math, but We Lag Behind Our Economic Competitors in the Developed World,” The Virginian Pilot, March 28, 1997, p. B3.
3 Robert Moses, “Algebra, the New Civil Right,” in The Algebra Initiative Colloquium, Volume II, edited by Carol Lacampagne and others (U.S. Department of Education, 1995), pp. 53-67.
4 Data available on the main NAEP data explorer: See also Jay Matthews, “Adding Eighth Graders to the Equation,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2007, p. B1.
5 Carolyn Shettle and others, America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study (Department of Education, 2007), p. 11. Other than calculus, advanced math is defined as pre-calculus or AP statistics.
6 Julia B. Smith, “Does an Extra Year Make Any Difference? The Impact of Early Algebra on Long-term Gains in Mathematics Attainment,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 18 no. 2 (1996): 141-153.