Universal Eighth Grade Algebra May Be Harmful to Some Students
Contrary to widespread belief among education policymakers,
requiring all eighth graders to take algebra may actually be
harmful to some students.
It is widely acknowledged that algebra is the gateway to college.
Numerous studies bear out the notion that students who complete
algebra earlier are more likely to perform better at math, take
advanced high school math courses, graduate from college and earn
more money over their lifetime.
However, a new study shows that the lowest performing eighth
grade math students who are least likely to be prepared for
algebra may be academically harmed by a policy that requires all
eighth graders to do so. Such a universal policy, first proposed
by the State Board of Education, does not take into account the
skills and needs of individual students, according to the study’s
The study is the first of its kind to focus solely on the impact
of placing the lowest performing students in eighth grade
algebra. The researchers—UC Davis School of Education professors
Michal Kurlaendar and Heather Rose, and Don Taylor, education
programs consultant and alumnus of the School’s Ed.D.
program—argue that placing all students in algebra regardless of
their level of math skills may harm the very students the policy
is meant to benefit.
“The Algebra for All argument is that taking algebra in the
eighth grade will benefit minorities and low-income groups,” said
Taylor. “But our study found that the lowest performing students,
composed significantly of low-income students of color, did not
benefit on standardized tests and had significantly lower GPAs
than peers, which may be a result of unfavorable comparisons to
higher performing students in the same courses.”
Low performing students more often fail algebra in the eighth
grade because they have not received the additional support they
need to succeed, according to the study, requiring them to take
the course again in ninth grade.
“Although placement in algebra courses as soon as possible should
remain a goal to ensure students are not tracked out of college
placement, we believe that a universal eighth grade algebra
policy has not been proven to benefit all and requires more
research to better understand potential issues,” said Taylor. “We
have an obligation as educators to ensure that the lowest
performing students do not see school as a punishment in the form
of lower grades, social embarrassment and parental ire.”
Taylor, Kurlaender and Rose will present “Outcome of Placing
Low-Performing Eighth Grade Students in Algebra Content Courses”
at the annual conference of the American Educational Research
Association on Sunday, April 15, 2012.
Michal Kurlaender investigates students’ educational pathways, in
particular K-12 and postsecondary alignment, and access to and
success in postsecondary schooling. She has expertise on
alternative pathways to college and college readiness at both
community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. In
addition to working with national data, Kurlaender works closely
with administrative data from all three of California’s public
higher education sectors–the University of California, the
California State University and the California Community College