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Should all 8th graders take Algebra?

An 8th grade teacher's experience...


Should all 8th graders take Algebra?  Or is it better to group kids by their math scores? This is the big question in middle school math and I can honestly say that we have tried both ways at my school with interesting results.  Every spring we have discussions about how to best meet our student's needs in math for the upcoming school year.  We usually end up with several perspectives, a lot of ideas and contradicting research and data.


Research does support the idea that leveling kids does not provide every student with an academic rich environment.   The lower classes tend to lack the rigor that the Algebra classes provide and these students continue to fall further behind their peers.  There is also the argument that putting kids in math classes that are above their ability level does not allow students to work at their level and sets them up for a frustrating  year.  


Here is what happened in my classroom when students were ability grouped in 8th grade math...


The first three years I taught 8th grade math, our math classes were grouped by ability. In fact, our math classes determined how our students were grouped in all of their core classes as well.  Most students took pre-algebra while the top 90 students took Algebra.  The pre-algebra classes were filled with students who had not much success in math so far in school and/or just plain didn't complete work so they ended up in the lower math classes based on grades.  Students travelled together all day so all of the low math classes ended up also being the low science classes and so on.  These classes seemed to include all of our behavior problems and an alarming number of students failing their classes (no matter how far we dropped the bar). So...I remember thinking after my first year teaching 8th grade math - something is wrong here. 


The kids in the lower classes fed off each other's attitudes towards math and tended to become negative leaders.  At the time there wasn't any intervention for these students so I struggled to balance filling in the missing basic skills while trying to move them ahead to get ready for high school math. We never seemed to get to the important Algebra concepts my higher class was working on.  I can honestly say that I didn't feel very successful with a majority of my pre-algebra classes.  We decided that we needed to do something different at our school so that these kids didn't continue to get left behind. 


Here is what happened at my school when all 8th graders took Algebra (with support).


Year 1 - All 7th graders in Pre-Algebra...

First of all, we didn't just throw everyone in Algebra and hope they would make it out alive.  It was a two-year process.  We started by putting all students in pre-algebra in 7th grade and then pushing that same group to Algebra in 8th grade.  We provided intervention at the end of the day to help our students process complex concepts and/or backfill missing skills.  Those classes were filled with groups of students working together to complete homework and teacher's supporting students who needed additional help.  Slowly but surely, we saw results.


Year 2 - All 8th graders in Algebra (with intervention) = Results...

At the end of year 2, our test scores had improved in both 7th and 8th grade math classes.  They increased by 7% in our 7th grade cohort and 4% in our 8th grade group.  These results tracked the same group of kids over two years.  When we compared the same grade level over two years, ours scores increased even more. This was the first year our 8th grade scores improved since 8th graders started being tested (5 years ago).  Typically, our 8th grade scores overall had decreased from the same group of student’s 7th grade year.  We were the only middle school in our district to have improved scores when tracking 7th graders math scores into their 8th grade year. This was also the first time any school in our district had increased scores in 8th grade from the previous year.  We were also the only school to put all 8th graders in Algebra. 


I personally noticed exponentially less behavior problems, increased motivation and the ability to really move students to another level in math regardless of missing basic skills.  What I found is that there is so much basic skill practice embedded in Algebra that they were able to work on those skills while moving beyond the basics.  These students have been reviewing the basics since 3rd grade.  Another year of review was not what they needed.  Even students who struggled with fractions could find the slope of a line.  I noticed that the students who were lacking basic skills picked up other concepts in Algebra.  The other Algebra teacher in my school had similar findings.


Year 3 - Here's what happened...all Algebra in 8th grade (without support)

Unfortunately, the following school year our intervention class went away due to budget cuts.  This had a huge impact on our kids that scored below grade level and were in Algebra.  I noticed that some kids would just check out when they didn't get it right away without the opportunity to revisit it later with a teacher and small group setting. It was tough to keep up the pacing set forth by the state in a 54 minute period with so many levels in one class and no other time to work with our kids that needed more time to process. Some kids were left behind. We haven't seen the new test results but I didn't feel nearly as successful without that intervention piece.


Year 4 - What's next...

The state of Washington is now requiring all students enrolled in Algebra (middle or high school) take an Algebra end-of-course exam.  They will have a limited number of times to attempt to pass this test and will need to pass this and another two years of advanced math in order to graduate.  This has prompted us to rethink our Algebra push in 8th grade for now until this mandate has been implemented fully.      


This fall (2010) we will have a few pre-algebra classes in 8th grade for students who are truly below grade level and need more time to process.  However, I will teach these classes with the same rigor as my Algebra classes.  All students who test at grade level will be in Algebra.  We will be focusing on Algebra concepts with all students so that they are not left behind but can learn complex concepts without the pressure of the end-of-course exam.  We will also have intervention classes in place to address integrating Algebra with basic skills.  There doesn’t seem to be a perfect answer but we are hopeful that we can focus on meeting student’s needs in response to state mandates. 


To be continued…J  (Isn’t that always the case in education?) 


~Written Summer 2010, S. Brown, 8th grade math teacher, co-founder