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Bad eighth grade math placements--an update

A thoughtful reader who signs on as "raging moderate" (my own self-concept too) asked two good questions about my recent Local Living column on bad timing in placing students in Algebra 1. Here is raging moderate's query, followed by the answer from Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, who supplied me the data.

[Raging moderate first quoted my piece:] "But Loveless showed that we are also missing students ready for algebra. Among the top 10 percent of eighth-graders, 18 percent are not in algebra or above, and that percentage is 24.6 for top black, Hispanic and low-income students."

I have two questions, Jay:

1. How do those percentages translate in terms of actual numbers -- in other words, how big is the sample that produces that 18% and 24.6%?

2. Will you do a similar racial breakdown for 28.6% in the bottom 10% who are nevertheless enrolled in Algebra I or above -- in other words, how many minority kids are being pushed into higher math before they are ready to make the racial numbers look good?

The bottom line of your story is that kids need to be evaluated for readiness individually, not by group. I also question whether the fallout of letting unready kids "struggle with" Algebra because some of them will succeed as a result is worth it to the ones who struggle and don't succeed. Are you willing to sacrifice them? I'll bet many of them would do much better if they got a year of Algebra prep followed by Algebra I in 9th grade.

Loveless responds:

I did some ballpark calculations to answer these two questions. Note that the true figures are 18.0% and 26.4%. (the 24.6% in your column transposed two digits--sorry, I checked your wording and did not the re-check the numbers, which were correct in the original email giving you the stats.)

1. The 18.0% and 26.4 % are approximately:

18.0% of all high achievers in 8th grade are enrolled in general math, pre-algebra or other = 68,000 students.
26.4 % of high achievers who are black, Hispanic, or poor are enrolled in general math, pre-algebra. or other= 14,000 students.

2. Racial breakdown of the misplaced students (10th percentile kids in algebra or above):

white 18.5% 22,000
black 38.4% 46,000
hispanic 38.6% 46,000

By Jay Mathews  | November 9, 2009; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Jay -

Have you ever taught in a school? If so, what grade, how long and what type, e.g. private, public, rural, urban, etc.?

You are popular education journalist, but I have a feeling that you have never been a traditional teacher for any substantial amount of time.

Posted by: demondmoy | November 10, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

What does it mean to be "ready" for algebra? Knowing what a fraction is? What a percentage is?

I see no reason why a kid can't pick this up while learning algebra. Also, I'd be shocked of a kid managed to get to age 13 without knowing (conceptually, if not formally) what a percentage is. My 3-year-old daughter already gets percentages.

The only people who don't want to put kids in algebra are lazy, ineffective teachers.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | November 10, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

asfljafqwljkife --

where to start? having some glancing idea of what a percentage is or a fraction is comes nowhere close to preparing a student to succeed in algebra. The student has to be fluent in manipulating percentages and (especially) fractions. You could put me in an astrophysics class because I do have some idea of what astronomy is about. But it would be a great disservice to the teacher and the other students because I don't have the knowledge background or skills to keep up with a class like that.
If you first put me in an astronomy class and a physics class, then later I could be ready for astrophysics.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 10, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

@jane100000 Your astrophysics example, naturally, is ridiculous. First of all, you'd probably do fine in an intro astrophysics course, as the only prerequisite would be basic calculus. But more importantly, unless the middle schooler's name is Leibniz, I wouldn't expect him to have picked up a passing familiarity with trigonometric integration.

Back on topic: I don't see why any intimate knowledge of fractions is needed in order to study algebra. In fact, I'd argue that it's impossible to have a thorough understanding of fractions without first having studied algebra.

What specific knowledge of fractions would you consider a prerequisite to studying algebra, and why can't that knowledge be acquired as a part of studying algebra?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | November 10, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

afsljafweljkjlfe, in response to your points:

At the unviversity that I graduated from, you could not take astrophysics before having had regular physics. And I also never took calculus. The point I was trying to make is that there are prerquisites for upper-level courses, and that applies in K-12 education too.

Similarly, I very much doubt that you can find many students who succeed at Algebra before they are fluent in manipulating fractions. So, it's certainly possible to imagine a middle school or high school math course that started with mastery of the algorithms that involve converting fractions and similar operations, and then proceed to learning algebra. But it would not make sense to start in on the algebra, then back-track to teach fractions upon finding out that the students didn't yet understand and could not use fractions.

Don't understand your comment about a middle-school Liebniz. Nothing I mentioned assumes genius middle-schoolers.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 10, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

As a 14 year algebra 1 teacher no student masters Algebra without the conceptual understanding and procedural fluency of rational expressions, i.e. fractions. In the Real Number world fractions show up, and not operating well with them spells doom in Algebra and beyond.
As the best math teacher I ever had in HS said, reading is more important than math. The higher you move up the mathematics 'food chain' the more important your language skills become. Students both struggle with Algebra and fail to appreciate its utility because their language skills are poor.

Out here in California I'm convinced our push to drive Algebra 1 down to an 8th grade requirement was fueled partly by the racial divisions among the Algebra and non-Algebra students. Forcing 'all' 8th graders to take Algebra one creates a facade of equal expectations for all, yet the NCLB reporting rules, like the game tape from a football game, reveal the ugly truth. Some students can grasp Algebra from the age of 13-14, but many, if not most, may not be MATURE enough for its rigor until 15-16.

Posted by: pdfordiii | November 11, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

"Out here in California I'm convinced our push to drive Algebra 1 down to an 8th grade requirement was fueled partly by the racial divisions among the Algebra and non-Algebra students."

Not "partly". It was ENTIRELY driven by a desire to pretend that racial divisions in readiness didn't exist.

And all it's doing is contributing to an ever-increasing failure patterns. Kids who go to majority-minority schools are "okay", in that they receive passing grades but have no understanding of the actual math, because they aren't actually being taught algebra.

Black and Hispanic kids in the suburbs, where the schools have to actually teach what the math class says it is, have astonishing failure rates. I have personally worked with students who have failed algebra three times--eighth grade, ninth grade, and sophomore year. One student even failed it four times, because he went to a school that taught a year's worth in one semester. So once in eight grade, twice in ninth grade, and he was on his way to failing his sophomore year. These suburban "failures", of course, have much higher math skills than the kids in majority-minority schools who are passing "fake" math.

It's an obscenity.

Worse, it is removing the stigma from failing. Schools just assume that students "will take two years" to get through Algebra, or Algebra 2, with no thought of what it is doing to the kid's GPA or how a kid processes the "it's no big deal, you'll take it next year" F.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 11, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Apologies for the previous - I hit the wrong key. If kids have mastered the essential pre-algebra skills, they'll do fine. Without those, they will struggle/fail at any age. Shoving all 8th-graders into a course LABELLED algebra and pretending they are really learning algegra is just wrong, but it's being done. It really hurts those kids who need work on the prerequisite skills and it hurts those kids who have them and need real algebra.

Even decades ago, before the big push for 8th-grade algebra, it was widely recognized that the (identical, county-wide) course descriptions meant one thing in affluent, western Montgomery County and something else on the other side of the county. I remember when the School Board were shocked, shocked! to discover that each school set their own passing level for the county-wide algebra exam, resulting in about a 30-point difference among schools. This had been an open secret for years.

Posted by: momof4md | November 11, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps the issue with kids failing algebra 3 or 4 times is ineffective teachers.

There are schools that manage just fine teaching Algebra 1 in a single semester. Surely with a full year, y'all ought to be able to find time for a fractions refresher course while still covering the material at a snail's pace.

I mean, really. 8th grade is plenty old enough to handle "difficult" maths like algebra.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | November 11, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

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