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Some 645,575 seventh- and eighth-graders are took Algebra 1in the seven states that have mandated it, in 2011-2012. The good news is that eight percent more middle-schoolers are taking course than in 2009-2010. But it still means that just 29 percent of all middle-schoolers in those states — and even fewer from poor and minority households — are taking this critical college-preparatory course. The result: Far too many of our children are not getting the challenging curricula they need for success in adulthood.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoThese are just some of the lessons gleaned by Dropout Nation in its latest analysis of U.S. Department of Education data on the success and failure of states and districts in providing Algebra 1 to children. And reformers should take these lessons to heart in their efforts to help all children attain the knowledge they, their families, and their communities need and deserve.

Nearly two years ago, Dropout Nation took a look at this issue as a response to the contention by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution that that there was no evidence that increasing enrollment in Algebra 1 and other advanced math courses led to improvements in student achievement. At the time, your editor noted that a critical flaw in the education scholar’s argument is that he never bothered to consider one of the most-important reasons why introductory algebra course-taking didn’t have any impact: Because few middle-school students are actually being taught introductory algebra in the first place.

As seen in California, where districts spent 16 years opposing that state’s Algebra 1 mandate, obstruction by bureaucrats and politicians, along with traditionalists including affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, can easily render reform initiatives meaningless. This reality cannot always be derived from analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (as Loveless had done). It did become clear from looking at reports submitted to the federal government by the Golden State, along with Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington who also mandate Algebra 1 coursework.

Two years later, and after numerous reports on the need for our kids to get on the path to traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that are the key training grounds in American higher education, Dropout Nation has taken a look at the issue to see if the seven states surveyed have improved upon their woeful numbers. While Loveless has doubled-down on his assertions (especially claiming that half of eighth-graders are taking Algebra 1, a statement made without any citation), your editor actually looked at real data. This involved using data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights database, the most-comprehensive collection on whether states, school operators, and schools are providing high-quality education, as well as enrollment information from the Common Core of Data. Once again, the results were revealing.

algebra_ocr_2012Only Two States Provide Algebra to More Than a Third of Middle-Schoolers: One of the states, Minnesota, made tremendous progress on this front, with two-fold increase in the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking introductory algebra. Even more importantly, the Land of Lakes is the only state which provides Algebra 1 to a third or more of children in every subgroup. Forty-three percent of black middle-schoolers and 41.5 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1, more than double the 16.4 percent and 16.1 percent rates for both groups two years earlier.

The other state with more than a third of middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 is California, which had a mandate for districts to provide the course from 1997 to 2012. Thirty four-point-eight percent of all Golden State seventh- and eighth-graders took introductory algebra in 2011-2012, a 16 percent increase over levels two years earlier. This includes 32.2 percent of Latino middle-school students and 34 percent of black students, along with 36 percent of white middle-schoolers and 41 percent of Asian peers.

Five States Bolstered Algebra 1 Providing by Double-Digits: Along with the aforementioned California and Minnesota, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington State also increased the percentage of kids taking introductory algebra. The Evergreen State, which had implemented its Algebra 1 mandate in 2008 (or two years before reporting its numbers for the first time to the federal government in 2010), increased the percentage of middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 by 59 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012.

Meanwhile the Bay State increased the percentage of middle-school students taking introductory algebra by 29.5 percent over a two-year period. And the Old Dominion increased the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 by 26 percent in that same period; this includes a 33 percent increase in the percentage of black middle-schoolers taking the course, and a 42 percent increase in Latino middle school students.

But the good news in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington State isn’t good enough. This is because none of the states have succeeded in providing Algebra 1 to at least 25 percent or more of black and Latino middle-schoolers. Just 18 percent of black seventh- and eighth-graders in Washington State took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, the third-lowest course-taking rate among the seven states on the list; the Evergreen State also has the third-lowest course-taking rate (14.2 percent) for Latino students on the list.

Florida and Pennsylvania Are Trailing Behind: The Sunshine State has led the nation on advancing systemic reform for most of the past three decades. But save for implementing Common Core, it has long-failed its children when it comes to providing college-preparatory math. It hasn’t turned things around on the Algebra 1 front. Just 19.2 percent of all Florida middle-schoolers took the course in 2011-2012, a one percent increase over the previous two years. Even worse, just 13.6 percent of black middle-schoolers and 16.4 percent of Latino peers taking Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, declines from, respectively, 13.9 percent and 16.6 percent for each subgroup two years earlier.

Meanwhile 22.6 percent of Keystone State middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1, unchanged from levels two years earlier. Even worse, the percentages of black and Latino students taking the course declined significantly. Just 11.1 percent of black middle-schoolers took introductory algebra, a 55 percent decrease over levels in 2009-2010, while the 11.6 percent of Latino seventh- and eight-graders taking Algebra 1  is a 48 percent decline from levels two years earlier.

algebra_black_kidsCommon Core Implementation Hasn’t Led to Declines in Algebra 1 Course-Taking: An underlying reason for opposition to implementing the reading and writing standards from some Algebra 1 activists such as Stanford University’s Williamson C. Evers is the fear that fewer middle-schoolers would be provided introductory algebra. This is because Common Core doesn’t require instruction in the subject until freshman year of high school, and therefore, make it less likely that children (especially those from poor and minority households) will take other advanced mathematics before graduating. Yet as the data shows, this hasn’t happened so far.

None of the five states surveyed that had implemented Common Core’s math standards — California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State — experienced declines in the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1. More importantly, California, Massachusetts and Washington increased the percentage of middle-schoolers taking the course by an average of 34.8 percent.

One reason why Common Core implementation had no negative effect on Algebra 1 course-taking? With Massachusetts and Washington State, , it was because both states still required districts to provide those courses to middle-schoolers — and made adjustments to the standards to allow for it. Contrary to the arguments of Common Core opponents, states can implement high-level standards and still meet their introductory algebra mandates.

California did end the Algebra 1 requirement as part of its Common Core implementation effort; but as I noted two years ago, this came after a decade-long battle in which the Golden State’s districts successfully opposed the state’s effort to implement the introductory algebra mandate. The move was all but a done deal by the time the state board of education voted in 2013 to end the requirement. So fears of Common Core foes that the standards would set kids back are unfounded so far.

Black and Latino Children Are Still Losing Out on College-Prep Opportunities: Twenty-three point-six percent of black middle-school students and 21.7 percent of Latino peers in the seven states surveyed took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. This is better than the levels of 17.2 percent and 16.8 percent for black and Latino students two years earlier. But fewer black and Latino children are being provided this key college-preparatory course than 38 percent of Asian students and 31 percent of white peers.

Sadly, this isn’t surprising: Black and Latino children are less-likely to attend schools providing Algebra 1 than other peers, are often kept out of gateway gifted-and-talented courses by teachers and guidance counselors who control access to those classes, and are often subjected to low-quality math instruction and curricula in the early grades. As a result black and Latino children are often kept off the path to higher ed completion and ultimately, economic and social success.

The good news is that American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander children, who have also been shortchanged of college-preparatory curricula, are actually getting access to Algebra 1 coursework. One out of every two Native Hawaiian children and 36.3 percent of Native peers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. Native Hawaiian children were included among Asian students before 2011-2012, so there is no comparison data from 2009-2010. But for Native students, the numbers is nearly a three-fold increase from levels two years earlier.

Certainly there are many reasons why middle-school Algebra 1 course-taking levels matter. One reason: Because so few kids will take any other college-preparatory course in high school if they haven’t taken introductory algebra during their middle school years. The other: Because taking Algebra 1 in seventh- and eighth-grade (as well as in high school), with healthy doses of support and high-quality math teaching, can help kids achieve success later on. As the work of Peter A. Cookson Jr. (now of the American Institutes for Research) and Constance Clark (formerly of the now-defunct Education Sector), as well as Allan W. Gottfried of California State University, Fullerton), have shown, more-challenging curricula (along with high-quality teaching) actually works.

There’s also the reality that far too many children from poor and minority households who are high-achieving– including the 3.4 million identified by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in 2007 — are rarely provided such courses. This is because of the very gatekeeping by teachers and guidance counselors that begins in early grades. As the National Math and Science Initiative and others have proven in efforts to bring more low-income and minority children into Advanced Placement courses, opening the doors to all expands opportunity to nurture their potential.

But providing introductory algebra in middle school remains a controversial issue, with Loveless and others arguing that doing so does little more than damage struggling students. While at least one study shows that students struggling with Algebra 1 in eighth-grade do end up passing the course by sophomore year of high school, other studies so far raise questions about how introductory algebra is being implemented in real time.

Yet Loveless and others fail to address a few inconvenient questions. The first: Whether kids are getting such coursework in the first place. As the data shows, just because states (along with districts) mandate Algebra 1 doesn’t mean it actually happens; as shown in the case of Charlotte Mecklenberg County district in North Carolina (where accelerated algebra was briefly implemented), struggling middle-schoolers had just a one-in-six chance of taking the course, which meant few students actually took it.

The second issue undiscussed? That students are rarely getting the support (in the form of intensive math remediation, high-quality teaching and additional algebra courses during middle school) they need in the first place, especially as a result of low-quality teaching. As shown in a 2013 study of Chicago high school students by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University, double-dosing is particularly helpful in helping kids gain the preparation needed to graduate from K-12 and higher ed down the road.

So it is important to provide all middle schoolers with Algebra 1. This includes developing programs that can support even kids struggling in math as they take on the challenge of college-preparatory coursework. Embracing a model such as that of legendary civil rights activist Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, which helps kids in high school master algebra, could be helpful at the middle school level.

But isn’t enough to provide algebra As the National Council on Teacher Quality and others have shown, far too many ed schools are poorly preparing aspiring teachers to do the hard work of teaching algebra and other math in the first place. There’s also the reality that the path to college-preparatory coursework must start earlier by providing all children, especially those from poor and minority households, with high-quality math curricula and instruction during the early grades.

As Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago, along with  Mimi Engel and F. Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, determined last year, providing kindergartners with instruction in advanced number concepts, and basic arithmetic such as addition and subtraction usually taught in first grade, helps children begin the important mastery of mathematics they will need to take on algebra years later. And as a team led by Maria Blanton of TERC determined in a study released in December, even third-graders can master algebra if given the proper instruction and curricula.

Our children need to be introduced to algebra and other college-preparatory coursework as early as possible. It can be done successfully. And it should be.

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