Another bite at moving algebra to 9th grade

another biteI’ve posted before about one of the conflicts that has emerged over the common core standards: Is the core right to move algebra from the 8th grade to the 9th?

I’d be curious to know how many schools are actually shifting their curriculum in response to the common core. In my experience, students are placed in 8th grade algebra if they seem ready to handle the challenge, and encouraged to take more pre-algebra when they are not. Supporting this practice are studies suggesting that efforts to move students into algebra faster end up diluting the course for students who ARE ready for the challenge . . . a practice that will hurt the mathematics education of the young people we are relying on to become our future scientists and engineers.

But there are some very strong arguments on the other side, including evidence that minority students are much more likely to take advanced math courses when schools require or at least strongly encourage 8th grade algebra.

Here’s some more data that supports the arguments of math common core critics. A recent analysis of ACT scores among Kentucky high school graduates shows that only 19% of students who complete a math sequence of Algebra I and II, Geometry and Trig score at “ready for college” levels on the ACT. That numbers goes up to 50% – only 50%, I’d note, which is really shockingly low – for students who also take pre-calculus. Intriguingly, adding calculus to the sequence only increases the readiness percentage to 53%, which may actually be an argument for postponing algebra until students are really ready – at least for some students.

My own inclination is to think that we need to maintain “tracking” that enables our more talented and/or motivated math students to push forward to more demanding levels while ensuring that students who struggle more with math aren’t “socially promoted” into math classes they can’t hope to handle. Unfortunately, this same policy too often allows students to indulge their math phobia or relutance to take tougher courses, and they will pay a price in college and beyond. Is it really impossible to combine tough math courses for the gifted or motivated  with tough love (and plenty of math) for everyone else?

What do you think?




  1. Lorraine

    Children have such a wide range of mathematical aptitude, some due to innate differences and some due to the learning environment. Perhaps the best solution would be to divorce mathematical proficiency from grade level and allow each child to move forward as they progress individually and are ready for new challenges. My son will be starting kindergarten, he has the emotional and verbal intelligence of a kindergartener, but he has a somewhat solid understanding of addition, a moderate understanding of subtraction, and understands the basics of multiplication. What do you do with a kid like this? He needs to be challenged at a higher level in math, but yet is not ready in other areas to be beyond kindergarten. Should he be forced to learn things he already understands and has practiced, or should he have the right to be challenge at a level appropriate to his individual aptitude?

    • Mary McConnell

      Your son sounds like a classic example of a student who would benefit from adaptive computer-based or online instruction – that is, lessons that become simpler or more complex in response to student cues (questions answered correctly or incorrectly.)

  2. Carolyn Sharette

    At our schools (American Preparatory Schools) we teach math at the students’ achievement level (not to be confused with ability level) and we find that quite a few students are “ready” for Algebra 1 in 8th grade. We place them in Algebra 1, and we find that by spring, we can quite easily see two groups have formed – those who master the concepts fully and are ready to move on, and those who are getting a good portion of it, but who are not truly “at mastery”. We place the 2nd group in another full year of Algebra, and by the end of 9th, they have a truly remarkable mastery of the subject and are well prepared to go on.

    We believe mastery of Algebra is a vital foundation for further math study, and offering 2 years of Algebra 1, with no one feeling like they “failed” has been a key to our success. We explain to parents and students that it just takes some students twice as long to thoroughly “get it”, and that it doesn’t mean anything in the long run (which we have found it doesn’t). Meaning that kids who take the 2-year route do just as well in future math courses as the students who took the 1-year route.

    I should also mention that we have found it is important to not pre-judge the students, and try to guess which ones are going to be one-year Algebra students and which will be two-year Algebra students. We are always surprised. And it is also important to give them all a rigorous Algebra course BOTH years (as opposed to dividing the curriculum and doing half each year). It is the 2nd repetition that seems to be so effective.

  3. Suzie

    I definitely agree with you, that we should track math, so that people who are ready to move on get to, and those who aren’t can stay back and get the help they need. That was one of my favorite things when I went to junior high, that I got to take math classes that actually challenged me. At the same time, there are kids who aren’t ready for alegbra and need to work up to it. I think that the system we currently have for math is excellent, and I really dislike the Core Curriculum math that’s being implemented in the grades below me. What the heck do you learn in Secondary Mathematics Honors? I know what algebra is, I know what geometry is, I know what calculus is, but I have never heard of a secondary mathematics honors.

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