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The Algebra Divide

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

Algebra is a gateway to better math scores on standardized tests, higher math courses, and college attendance. Several studies have now established these benefits. Yet in districts or states that do not require algebra for graduation from high school, many students never study it, including a disproportionate number of poor and minority children. They will be at a disadvantage when the new SAT is administered in March 2005: the math section will cover not only Algebra I and Geometry but some concepts from Algebra II.

So, how can district leaders promote more and better instruction in algebra for all students? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics advises administrators to "create the school climate and energize teachers and students in ways that will challenge current expectations and set new goals for mathematics teaching and learning." The latest research suggests some specifics:

Prep for success in the early grades. NAEP results for 13-year-olds suggest that large numbers do not have the computational skills they need before they can take algebra. These skills should be mastered during the elementary grades, starting with pre-math skills in kindergarten, when many black and Hispanic students already trail their white and Asian counterparts on tests of early-math skills. Students should also be introduced to algebraic concepts during the elementary grades so that they are prepared to make the middle-school "leap" to algebra's more abstract language.

Offer algebra in the eighth grade. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and those who have analyzed the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study agree that students need algebra by the end of eighth grade if they are to achieve high standards. A recent study conducted by Nora Hall at George Mason University found that students who took algebra in the 8th grade were more likely to continue taking high-level mathematics courses throughout high school than students who took algebra in the 7th or 9th grades. The Southern Regional Education Board Assessment of Seniors found that students who said they took at least one semester of Algebra I in the 6th, 7th, or 8th grade generally scored better in math. Yet nationally, only 27 percent of all white and Asian-American eight-graders take Algebra 1, and only 20 percent of Latinos and African-Americans.

Recruit or develop qualified math teachers. Students achieve higher math scores when their middle school and high school teachers major in the subject, but the 1999 TIMSS-R showed that only 41 percent of U.S. eighth graders had a teacher who majored in math.

Invest in high-quality professional development. The current trend is toward more emphasis on understanding concepts and less on memorizing formulas, but the National Academies support a teaching approach that includes both--and helps students solve problems, reason, and relate math to everyday life. An analysis of TIMSS data by William Schmidt of Michigan State University finds that American students spend more time in middle school going over familiar ground instead of moving on to complex math as Japanese and other students in other top-scoring countries do. Teachers need opportunities to examine and discuss such issues and the implications for their own practice.

Enroll more students in algebra. The Southern Regional Education Board found that enrolling more 9th-grade students in high-level classes does not raise failure rates and does raise student achievement. Evidence from the board suggests that students who go on to college are less likely to need remedial courses if they complete a core of challenging academic courses in high school and take a high-level mathematics course in the senior year. This is significant, given that 62 percent of remedial education students are deficient in mathematics, compared with 37.7 percent in reading and 44.6 percent in writing.

Mathematics Achievement Gap: NAEP Results for 17-year-olds to solve multi-step to solve moderately complex problems

African-American ..........1%..............................................27%



Source: NAEP, web page

Higher Math = Higher Education

Algebra is the gateway to higher-level high school mathematics courses. Taking these courses increases the odds of earning a college diploma

Source: Adelman, Clifford. 1999, web site

Note: Graduates from moderate-sized schools (enrollment of 300 to 999) completed more advanced mathematics coursework than graduates of smaller and larger schools.


Adelman, C. Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1999.

Horn, L., and Nunez, A. M. Mapping the Road to College: First-Generation Students' Math Track, Planning Strategies, and Context of Support (NCES 2000-153). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education/NCES, 2000.

McCabe, R.H. No one to waste: A report to public decision-makers and community college leaders, p. 41. Washington, DC: Community College Press, 2000.

National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Closing the Achievement Gap: Improving Educational Outcomes for African American Children. Washington, DC: Author, 2001.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). America's Kindergartners. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education/NCES, 2000.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Digest of Education Statistics 2000, Table 140, 2001.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), The 1998 High School Transcript Study Tabulations. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education/NCES, 2001.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Student Characteristics in Science and Mathematics Coursetaking, Indicator 27, 2002.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Principals and Standards for School Mathematics, Frequently Asked Questions. Reston, VA: Author, 2000.

Riley, R.W. Mathematics Equals Opportunity. White paper prepared by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1997.

Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Reducing Remedial Education: What Progress are States making? (Educational Benchmarks 2000 Series), p. 18. Atlanta, GA: SREB, 2000.

1999 NAEP Long-Term Trend Mathematics Summary Data Table for Age 17 Student Data, pp. 33, 41, and 49