Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

Is Grade 8 Too Early for Algebra?

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District boasts the third-highest test scores in the state of California. So it would be natural to assume that a relatively large share of its eighth-graders are on the accelerated track in mathematics.

Conversely, the Lennox school district has the highest rate of poverty in the South Bay. One might assume that a disproportionate number of its eighth-graders take it slower in math.

But the opposite is true.

In affluent Manhattan Beach, 44 percent of eighth- graders took algebra I or higher in 2009-10, the latest available data from the California Department of Education. The corresponding figure in Lennox was 94 percent.

The comparison of Manhattan Beach and Lennox mirrors an odd trend that is happening statewide. While the overall rate of eighth-graders taking algebra is skyrocketing, the change is most dramatic among low-income school districts serving disadvantaged minorities, according to a February study by EdSource, a nonprofit research group.

“If you’re a student from a disadvantaged background – and are African-American or Hispanic – you are more likely to be placed in an algebra class in eighth grade than if you are a white suburban kid in an affluent district,” said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, and a critic of California’s algebra rush. “The schools in the suburbs still have standards for entrants.”

The phenomenon is partly the result of a 2008 decision by the state Board of Education mandating algebra in the eighth grade.

This was at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drew parallels between universal eighth- grade algebra and putting a man on the moon.

The policy was later challenged successfully in court, and so is not currently law. But it nonetheless added encouragement to a trend that had already begun: More and more eighth-graders in California are taking algebra I or higher, regardless of whether they are ready for it.

In just seven years beginning in 2002-03, the statewide percentage of such students has nearly doubled, from 34percent to 62 percent.

As for Loveless, he conducted a widely reported study three years ago looking at the bottom 10th percentile of U.S. eighth-graders in mathematics. About a third of these low scorers on a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were enrolled in algebra I or higher.

“A large percentage are functioning at the second- to third-grade level,” Loveless told the Daily Breeze. “For instance, they don’t know fractions.”

Closer to home, EdSource this year released a study examining how the push has affected California students.

The study concluded that while taking algebra in eighth grade serves the most prepared students well, it also has set many students up to fail.

The study found, for instance, that a third of students who performed poorly in regular seventh-grade math were nonetheless placed into algebra I in eighth grade, “with almost no chance for success.”

Loveless credited Manhattan Beach’s approach as sensible. There, a large chunk of students – about a third – take algebra in two parts, the first in eighth grade, the second in ninth.

Here, too, the number of students completing algebra I in eighth grade is slowly rising. But Manhattan Beach administrators say they are more concerned that students have a solid grasp of the material.

“Are all kids ready for that level of abstraction and complexity by eighth grade?” district spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said. “Many (experts) say no.”

As it happens, school districts with low numbers of eighth-graders completing algebra I actually get dinged by the state on test scores. But this doesn’t concern John Jackson, principal of Manhattan Beach Middle School.

“Our job is to get them ready for high school, and that’s what we do really well,” he said.

(It could be argued that Manhattan Beach Middle School, with its off-the-charts API of 941, has a few points to spare.)

As for Lennox, its eighth- graders have struggled in recent years to master the algebra class in which they were placed. In 2009-10, a disappointing 27 percent scored proficient or better on the Algebra I California Standards Test.

But Joann Isken, the Lennox district’s assistant superintendent of instructional services, said the district three years ago launched an initiative to boost performance in the elementary grades, with an eye toward the ultimate goal: that all eighth-graders not only take algebra I, but also succeed.

She said the effort is beginning to pay off: Last year, it produced a class of students so advanced they were able to take algebra in seventh grade.

“We’re very excited about the progress we’re seeing,” she said. Administrators, she added, are waiting with bated breath for the release later this summer of the latest California Standards Test results.

Math problem

There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?

A) 9

B) 81

C) 91

D) 99

E) 100

The answer is D.

A report by the Brookings Institution found that only 49 percent of eighth-graders taking algebra knew the correct answer.