‘Algebra for all’ may harm many kids

UC DAVIS (US) — An education policy in the state of California that requires all eighth graders to take algebra may do more harm than good for the lowest-performing students.

Such a universal policy, first proposed by the California Board of Education, doesn’t take into account the skills and needs of individual students, specifically those who are least likely to be prepared for the course, researchers argue.

In a new study, Michal Kurlaendar and Heather Rose, professors of education at the University of California, Davis, together with education programs consultant Don Taylor, say those students—often from low-income families—may be academically harmed if required to take the course.


The study was presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Vancouver, Canada.

Much of current education policy—including proposed policy by the California state Board of Education—bears out that, overall, students who complete algebra earlier are more likely to take advanced math courses in high school, graduate from college, and earn more money in their lifetimes.

The new study is the first of its kind to focus solely on the impact of placing the lowest-performing students in eighth-grade algebra.

“The ‘algebra for all’ argument is that taking algebra in the eighth grade will benefit minorities and low-income groups,” says Rose. “But our study found that the lowest-performing students, composed significantly of low-income students of color, did not benefit on standardized tests and had significantly lower GPAs than their peers, which may be a result of unfavorable comparisons to higher-performing students in the same courses.”

Low-performing students more often fail algebra in the eighth grade because they have not received the additional support they need to succeed, requiring them to take the course again in ninth grade, the study reports.

“Although placement in algebra courses as soon as possible should remain a goal to ensure students are not tracked out of college placement, we believe that a universal eighth-grade algebra policy has not been proven to benefit all and requires more research to better understand potential issues,” Rose says.

“We have an obligation as educators to ensure that the lowest-performing students do not see school as a punishment in the form of lower grades, social embarrassment and parental ire.”

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