When it comes to Algebra 1 timing is everything
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In a recent post, College Readiness, the Keys, Mel Riddile discussed the Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) findings for success in college. Of particular interest to me was the correlation between a student’s performance in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 and the likelihood of graduating from college. Among the County’s “7 Keys to Success” were that students who took Algebra 1 in the eighth grade and received a grade of “C” or passed Algebra 2 by the junior year had a significantly higher graduation rate than those that did not. There is little doubt MCPS assertions concerning math and college graduation have a high level of validity.
The Best of Plans; the Worst of Plans
Of greater concern were the two different approaches to placing students in math classes presented by Dr. Riddile. While there should be no arbitrary percentage attached to Algebra 1 readiness, the fact that 39% of all students in MCPS are enrolled in Algebra 1 prior to their freshmen year would appear very reasonable. Based on my years of teaching and observing the performance of students in this course, I have found that depending upon the unique nature of a particular group of students somewhere between one-third and one-half of a class are capable of benefitting from Algebra 1 prior to the ninth grade. Those that are not ready at this point in their educational careers should take a rigorous eighth-grade course to prepare them for success in the next year. With such a background Algebra 2 in the junior year (and pre-calculus as seniors) should be well within reach.
It was the second school system described by Dr. Riddile that was extremely troubling. In this district, located in close proximity to MCPS, early exposure to Algebra 1 was reserved for a far smaller group. The philosophy was that enrollment in this class prior to high school was the exclusive domain of the “gifted and talented.” While such a definition does not automatically indicate too selective a process, additional information is very disturbing. The initial testing and screening process eliminates four out of every five students. Then to compound matters the only students who are given algebra preparation are the 5% (one in twenty) who are labeled “gifted and talented” in math. It is small wonder that in this district the percentage taking Algebra 1 prior to high school is less than half that of MCPS. The negative ramifications of such an approach are immense. Approximately one-fourth of the students in this system are being needlessly held back in their math careers. Such decisions deny them the opportunity to take AP or IB Calculus in high school and place them at a seriously weakened position when compared to their peers in neighboring districts. While such decisions may not prevent students to advanced to and succeed at the college level (they still have the opportunity to take Algebra 2 in grade 11), these individuals will be at a competitive disadvantage both in their collegiate options and their mathematical skill level.
I concur with Dr. Riddile when he states, “To me this looks a lot like tracking. Not only are the students in this school system being victimized by low adult expectations, but they are systematically being prevented from taking a more challenging course of study in high school.” At a time when the math skills of the typical student in the United States is lagging significantly behind those of others in the world no qualified student should ever be held back because of the lack of a specific title or a quota.
An Equally Worst Plan
Fortunately, this approach to Algebra 1 prior to high school is a minority view. However, there is another equally misguided philosophy concerning Algebra 1 placements and poor math performance that was not discussed by Dr. Riddile and is fast becoming standard practice in too many school districts. This response is the decision to make Algebra 1 the standard math course for virtually every eighth grader. Just as excluding capable students from advancing at the appropriate rate, the rush to have “8th grade Algebra 1 for all” can be equally injurious to the high school math careers of a large number of students. This ill-advised plan will be the focus of my next three posts.
Next: The case against Algebra 1 for everyone