News Michal Kurlaender Heather Rose

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 authors.

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.

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