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News from Mathnasium of Littleton

Algebra Too Soon?

Jan 12, 2021

This article was originally published on our website in February 2015. We believe it holds true today and are republishing it with some corrections and improvements.

In our focus on Common Core standards, one question being overlooked by parents is “When should my child be taking Algebra?”  I grew up in the freshman year algebra era but today many students have taken algebra in 8th and even 7th grades. In the past couple of years, much has been written by educators as to whether we are exposing students to algebra too early.

Algebra is considered the gateway to higher math.  It has been referred to as “the key that unlocks the world of science, innovation, engineering, and technology.”  A 2013 Brookings Institution study states that “the push that shoved algebra to eighth grade began in the 1980s (in) an effort to increase international competitiveness by turning out more math whizzes.”  The 8th grade algebra-to-high school calculus track has been found to be full of potential pitfalls. There is concern that taking algebra in 8th grade has become a status symbol and hard to critically review even in the face of studies that have found more detriment to a student’s future math development may be caused by starting algebra too soon.

There is significant research that shows that the completion of a mathematics course beyond algebra 2 increases two-fold that a student will pursue and obtain a college degree.  The problem is that students that struggle in algebra compromise their long term education and career opportunities particularly in the highly sought after STEM fields.  Many studies suggest that 8th grade students may not be universally ready for algebra and that this push may, in fact, be putting them at a disadvantage.

Linda Gojak, former President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, provided a great analogy to reading Gone with the Wind – a novel determined to be at a sixth-grade reading level in her article, Algebra, Not If, But When.  “Just because a student can read the sentences in Gone with the Wind doesn’t mean that she has the experience or maturity to deeply understand what she is reading. The same is true in mathematics. Just because a student can mimic steps shown by the teacher doesn’t ensure that he has the sophistication to deeply understand the mathematics."

“Algebra too soon” means that a student is lacking the prerequisite knowledge of math foundational skills to be successful in algebra which involves more abstract concepts which require a higher level of educational maturity.  To be successful in algebra, students must comprehend abstract definitions and work with abstract models while demonstrating mastery in the mathematical foundations that precede algebra including a mastery and understanding of fractions and fractional parts as well as mastery of basic numerical fluency (having strategies to manipulate numbers beyond counting by ones). In our rush to 8th grade algebra, this country has fallen behind in properly developing mathematical fluency and number sense which is necessary for the comprehension of the abstract concepts in algebra.

A high school math teacher stated: “When (kids) struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.  If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could turn them on to math.”  This is being supported by many studies that show that more kids are dropping out of math in high school taking just three years in the subject.  In fact, one study showed that students that take algebra in 9th grade as opposed to 8th grade are more likely to take four years of high school math and continue taking math classes in college. Studies show that 60 percent of students entering college are needing to enroll in remedial math just to get to a college level in the subject.

Simply surviving and passing math should not be the goal of any student or parent.  Due to the linear nature of math learning, concepts taught in one year become the building blocks for the next level of math.  Without mastery of the prerequisite knowledge, the potential for failure is increased as is the student’s path to hating math.

Recent studies in California and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. have compiled student performance since being introduced to 8th grade algebra and have sound that “placing struggling students in algebra does not improve their test performance on state math tests, and significantly hurts their grade point averages and the likelihood of their taking and passing higher math courses in high school."  Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, that conducted a 2013 study on this subject, stated: "It is possible for children in 8th grade or even younger to take algebra and do well in algebra, but not all students, and the defining characteristic seems to be prior knowledge."

The key to success appears to be readiness.  Which should be defined by the development of each student and not on a one-size fits all mentality.  Readiness includes the education maturity demanded of algebra and, more importantly, mastery in the foundation skills including number sense, counting, computation and proportional/fractional thinking. We risk turning students off to math if they are not developmentally ready to deal with the abstract concepts of math. Getting back to the basics has to be our number one priority.

Article originally written by J Steve Santacruz owner of Mathnasium of Glenview, Kenilworth and Lake Forest, Illinois.