The Algebra Imperative: Assessing Algebra in a National and International Context

Tom Loveless

Over the past two decades, algebra has acquired elevated status within the U.S. school curriculum. Researchers have documented that readiness for both college-level mathematics and technically-oriented employment hinges on students gaining, at least by the end of high school, a basic knowledge of algebra.[i] The recognition of algebra’s “gatekeeper” role within the continuum of high school math courses–that it must be taken and passed by any student who aspires to take calculus or other advanced mathematics–led Robert Moses, a 1982 MacArthur fellow, to declare algebra a civil rights issue.[ii]

These developments present a challenge for policymakers: the need to measure–in a sound, trustworthy manner–national progress in learning algebra.  The essay below explores how that goal can be accomplished. The essay is organized by four sections. The first section describes the current state of affairs in assessing algebra—the national and international tests that Americans rely on to measure progress. Section two presents evidence that the current battery of assessments is inadequate.  Section three discusses prospects for remedying the situation. Section four concludes.

[i] Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy, Teaching the New Basic Skills (The Free Press, 1996).

[ii] The Algebra Project,  For algebra’s gatekeeper role, note that the most commonly cited source of evidence, Clifford Adelman’s (1999) Answers in the Toolbox, actually identifies completing a course beyond algebra II as the most consequential predictor for college completion.  The study also fails to adequately control for selection effects.  Adelman, C. 1999. Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.