Pernicious Egalitarianism Shrinks 8th Grade Algebra Programs

Published August 11, 2015

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) decided recently to eliminate first-year algebra for 8th graders.

Algebra will now be offered only in high school. Of course, it is a mistake to allow students to take algebra if they are not prepared for it. To succeed in algebra, students must have already achieved mastery of fractions, percentages, decimals, ratios, and negative numbers and be able to solve a variety of word problems. But if a student is qualified to take algebra in 8th grade and would do well in it, why not give the child that opportunity?

A growing trend among school districts is to limit or eliminate entirely advanced learning opportunities for students, because the districts claim Common Core discourages acceleration of individual students. Districts increasingly prefer for students to wait until high school before taking algebra as a result.

Common Core, however, in fact defines four possible mathematical pathways. One allows for taking algebra prior to reaching the 9th grade via a “compacted” version of the traditional pathway. No content is omitted under this pathway and students can complete the content of 7th grade, 8th grade, and high school introductory algebra in grades 7, under the Compacted 7th Grade pathway, and 8, under the 8th Grade Algebra I plan.

Many schools and districts had such pathways in place before Common Core was implemented, but following the implementation of Common Core, schools and school districts are making it more difficult for students to qualify for the “compacted” versions.

I witnessed this first-hand in 2014, when I was teaching pre-algebra and algebra at a middle school in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) in California during a time when school districts were making the transition to Common Core.

Limiting ‘Accelerated Math’

Several of us math teachers were told by a district official the district was limiting the “accelerated math” in which qualified students in 8th grade, and even some in 7th grade, had been allowed to take the Algebra 1 course. It would be available only for “truly gifted” students, as she termed them, determined by a new test the district would administer to 6th and 7th graders for algebra placement purposes: the Silicon Valley Math Initiative assessments.

These tests will be administered in addition to the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP), which has been given for many years. California State University and University of California developed the MDTP. It is a straightforward multiple-choice exam that has had a good track record of accurately placing students in Algebra 1 for 8th grade. Districts use the tests on a voluntary basis; they are not required to use them.

The new test—never given anywhere before—was written by a group called the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI), a group of math reform types funded by the Noyce Foundation.

I spoke up at this point, asking district officials, “If it’s never been given before, how is it going to be considered in making the decision for placement?”

The response: “That’s something the district is going to have to determine once we see the results.”

The only guidance I was given was because it’s a new test, it won’t be counted as heavily as the MDTP test.

I recall from one of my pre-algebra classes a very bright girl who said she hoped she would place into Algebra 1. She in fact scored higher than 80 percent on the MDTP and did well on the SVMI test.

“I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said to the girl who sat behind her.

This kind of attitude is probably a dominant factor in causing some school districts to react against acceleration. Another reaction has been to open up algebra in 8th grade for all students, no matter how weak their preparation. We’ve seen that is a mistake. The opposite and equally wrong reaction is SFUSD’s “nobody gets to take algebra until high school” policy.

‘Newly Formed and Very Small Elite’

Other school districts, such as the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, restricted entry as much as possible through its exclusionary tactics. The 8th grade traditional Algebra 1 class has become an endangered species, open only to a newly formed and very small elite. During my assignment at the middle school, during the 2013–14 school year, about 300 students enrolled in Algebra 1 in the entire district. During the 2014–15 school year, the number dropped to 46. Many of the rest would have qualified but for the hurdle imposed by SVMI. They were now part of the larger and growing class of “stupid people.”

Ironically, the policies in the SFUSD and SLCUSD will have exactly the reverse effect than what was intended. Bright, well-prepared students whose parents have the information and the means will find the right options for their children. Other students, especially children of low socioeconomic backgrounds living in low-education communities, will be boxed out of the opportunity to advance themselves through public education. For this group, algebra will be a watered-down Common Core version that’s received almost exclusively in 9th grade.

All in the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good.

Barry Garelick ([email protected]) has written extensively about math education in various publications, including The Atlantic, Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is teaching middle and high school math in California. Garelick is the author of Teaching Math in the 21st Century, which recounts his experiences as a long-term substitute in a high school and middle school in California.

Image by Jimmie.