Algebra: A Challenge at the Crossroads of Policy and Practice
Issue/Topic: Curriculum--Mathematics; Instructional Approaches--Tracking/Ability Grouping
Author(s): Hillen, Amy; Kaufman, Julia; Sherman, Milan; Stein, Mary
Organization(s): Carnegie Mellon University; Kennesaw State College; Portland State University; University of Pittsburgh
Publication: Review of Educational Research
Published On: 12/20/2011
Viewed as the gateway to higher mathematics, post secondary educational opportunities, and technically skilled jobs, algebra has been identified as a serious equity and civil rights issue. Because access to algebra in eighth grade positions students to enroll in a high school course-taking sequence ending in calculus by twelfth grade, the point at which students gain access is also deemed critical.
To provide an assessment of what we know about selective and “universal algebra” policies, including who is getting access to algebra and at what point in their educational careers. Also assessed is the knowledge base regarding what is taught in the name of algebra and the outcomes associated with different patterns of algebra course taking.
U.S. Trends for Who Takes Algebra and When, and What Algebra is Taken
- There has been a significant increase in eighth grade Algebra I enrollment over the past two decades. As a consequence, there have been small declines in the percentage of those students taking Algebra I in the later grades.
- Although enrollment has increased, the overall achievement has decreased, which suggests that students with a broader range of preparedness are taking the course.
- There has been consistently lower enrollment in 8th and 9th grade algebra among Black and Hispanic students, low-income students and those whose parents have fewer years of education, including those students who are prepared to take algebra based on their achievement scores.
Algebra Course Taking and Student Outcomes Unconnected to Specified Policy Contexts
- Students who took algebra in 8th grade took more years of advanced mathematics courses than did their counterparts who did not take algebra in 8th grade. However, between one half and two thirds of those students did not take mathematics courses beyond Algebra II.
- On average, students who took algebra in 8th grade had higher achievement scores compared to those who did not take algebra in 8th grade. However, students scoring at the lowest levels on achievement tests benefit more from waiting to take algebra until high school.
- Success of 8th grade algebra takers could also be explained partially by unmeasured factors such as students’ higher expectations of themselves, teachers’ higher expectations, and learning potential beyond what is measured on standardized tests.
Algebra Course Taking and Student Outcomes Under Universal Algebra policies
- Universal algebra policies resulted in large increases in algebra enrollment, with enrollment for minority students and students from lower socioeconomic groups increasing the most.
- Although increases in enrollment led to a greater number of students passing algebra in all cases, they also led to a greater number of students failing algebra because more unprepared students were enrolled.
- Many students who would have previously been excluded from algebra did take and succeed in algebra.
- Achievement gains occurred in settings where policies were accompanied by strong supports for struggling students.
- Successful universal algebra policies that demonstrated some increase in student achievement shared a commonality: additional time for algebra.
- The key for policy is to ensure that students receive instruction that both is geared to their needs and moves them toward commonly accepted standards for what it means to be competent in algebra.
- The evidence suggests that a universal algebra requirement will be most successful if accompanied by increased time for mathematics instruction and intensive support for lower-achieving students. Future studies could be strengthened by looking more carefully at classroom instruction through a common framework in concert with student outcomes.
- Policymakers should know the extent to which other factors contribute to successful outcomes under universal mandates such how the availability of ample numbers of skilled teachers affect student success and if the choice of curricular materials matter.
Students in grades 8-12 in various studies.
Year data is from:
Data Collection and Analysis:
A meta-analysis of 44 studies, including research published in academic journals, in conference proceedings, or through organizations.
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