National Survey Finds That Algebra Is Not Usually Offered in Eighth Grade

If you’re in eighth grade and want to take algebra, is it possible to enroll in the class?

The answer to that question depends on two main factors: how your school selects students for advanced math and where you live.

According to a recently released nationally representative survey, 65% of principals in the United States said that their elementary or middle school offered algebra in eighth grade, but only to a specific group of students. Meanwhile, only 20% of principals mentioned that their school allowed any student to take the class in eighth grade.

However, these numbers vary by state. In California, almost half of the principals stated that their school offered algebra only to certain eighth graders. On the other hand, in Florida, over 80% of principals reported that the class was restricted. In both states, 18% of principals said that any eighth grader had the opportunity to take the class, which is similar to the national average.

These findings, which are based on surveys conducted by the RAND Corporation, highlight the unequal access to advanced math classes in middle school and how this can affect students’ future educational and career opportunities.

Algebra is often seen as a crucial class. Eighth graders who take algebra have a smoother path to calculus by 12th grade, which can open doors to challenging math classes in college and careers in science and engineering.

“The kids who aren’t taking algebra by eighth grade can still catch up,” said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND and the lead author of the report. “But they would need to take additional steps, such as doubling up on math or attending a summer class,” she added.

The report also reveals that students are often grouped based on their perceived math abilities, starting as early as elementary school.

More than 40% of elementary school principals indicated that their school grouped students based on their math levels, mostly within the classroom. However, this number increases to nearly 70% in middle school, with the most common practice being separating students into different math classes based on honors or career preparatory tracks.

Kaufman noted, “The prevalence of achievement-level grouping, starting within classrooms in K-5 schools and then becoming more common in middle school math classes, is something new.”

These findings come at a time when parents and school leaders across the country are engaged in intense debates regarding whether students should be allowed to take algebra before high school and what kind of support they need to succeed in the class.

Interestingly, San Francisco Unified schools, which became known for a policy that prevented students from taking algebra until ninth grade, are now planning to reintroduce algebra in middle school following pushback from parents. The initial policy was implemented 10 years ago with the goal of helping more Black, Latino, and low-income students pass algebra and access higher-level math classes. However, it did not achieve the desired outcomes.

The survey data does not examine whether tracking students’ abilities in math helps or hinders their academic performance.

The report also acknowledges that other factors, such as teacher certification rules, school funding levels, and state policies, can impact students’ access to higher-level math classes. For example, California encourages students to take algebra in ninth grade, while New York schools are expected to offer high school math to eighth graders who wish to enroll.

Kaufman suggests that schools should evaluate the criteria they use for grouping students in math and assess whether it contributes to racial or socioeconomic disparities. She stated, “We’re not recommending that tracking should be completely eliminated. However, if students are being grouped, this report calls for a careful examination of how they are being grouped and whether there is any bias. For example, are a significant number of students of color placed in lower tracks? What is happening there?”

Schools implementing various strategies to expand algebra access

Nationally, white and Asian American students are more likely than their Black and Hispanic peers to enroll in and pass algebra in eighth grade, according to the latest federal data. Historically, students from low-income families have also had less access to algebra in eighth grade.

In recent years, school districts like Chicago have taken steps to increase access to algebra in eighth grade. This includes offering the class online and covering the costs for educators to obtain algebra teaching credentials. Previously, fewer students from predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods in the city were able to take the class before high school.

The RAND survey found that principals in more affluent schools were more likely than those in high-poverty schools to consider requests from parents or guardians to place students in advanced math classes. This could disadvantage students who do not have parental support to advocate for them, Kaufman pointed out.

The report recommends that schools use multiple data points to determine which students should be placed in higher-level math classes. It also suggests that schools experiment with the cutoff scores used to identify students who can handle more challenging math coursework.

In Oklahoma, Union Public Schools has taken steps in this direction, as reported by The Hechinger Report. The district, which serves parts of Tulsa and the southeast suburbs, used to administer a pre-algebra placement test in fifth grade only once.

However, after realizing that this approach mostly resulted in students from whiter and wealthier neighborhoods being placed in advanced middle and high school math classes, the district made changes. They now allow students to take the fifth-grade placement test multiple times, and teachers can recommend promising students regardless of their score. This has helped diversify advanced math classes, especially for Hispanic students.

Union Public Schools has also introduced math tutoring starting in third grade. The RAND report emphasizes the importance of such support for student success, although many struggling students currently do not receive it.

More than three-quarters of middle school principals noted that less than half of their struggling students took advantage of math support options offered by the school, such as tutoring, double-dose math classes, or a summer math program. This highlights the need for schools to identify students in need of extra help and ensure that they and their parents are aware of the available support. Schools may also need to reevaluate how the support is provided, such as offering after-school tutoring during regular school hours or providing transportation to enable more students to participate.

Kaufman emphasized the importance of these steps, particularly at a time when many students are struggling to address math learning gaps that emerged during remote or disrupted schooling due to the pandemic.

“I know that tutoring is happening in many places; it’s currently a priority for the White House,” she said. However, if tutoring is primarily offered to students and parents who volunteer, “then the tutoring won’t reach the students who need it the most.”

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