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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

“Algebra for all” policy flawed, according to study

Learning algebra too early in life could be more harmful than beneficial to some students, according to a new study conducted by UC Davis School of Education professors Michal Kurlaender and Heather Rose, along with education programs consultant Don Taylor.

The study – which looks at low-performing eighth-grade students who are placed in algebra – holds negative implications for a policy that requires all eighth-grade students to take algebra.

“I think the main message is that a ‘one size fits all’ policy is not likely to be effective, and that we need much more evidence about how policies may impact students across the achievement distribution,” Kurlaender said. “In other words, from the most successful students, those that perform at the average and those that struggle.”

Current policies in action, as well as those proposed by the California Board of Education, support a belief that students who complete algebra are more successful.

“Algebra is a critical gatekeeper for college and future academic success and so it is critical that everyone master it,” said Kurlaender. “The downside is that just because you make it universal, doesn’t mean everyone will master it.”

Indeed, the findings of the study reinforce the need to reconsider this universal policy. In the study, Kurlaender, Rose and Taylor compared their test score outcomes and grades across subsequent years and found little positive difference between students placed in algebra and similar peers who are not placed in algebra. In fact, there appeared to be a negative result compared to those not placed in algebra.

“On the student’s math-specific GPA, algebra course placement was related to a reduction in their GPA by an average of 7 percent,” Taylor said. “In other words, it may be that placement in an eighth-grade algebra course academically harms a low-performing student.”

The researchers found that the hardest-hit group was low-income minority students, who were disproportionately represented in the low-performance group. According to Rose, these students experienced a drop in GPA, possibly due to unfavorable comparisons with high-performing students after standardized testing.

So what can educators do to help provide more support for these low-performing students? Taylor points to a suggestion made by other researchers.

“Such students may need more diverse and thought-provoking instructional methods than are typically offered in high school algebra,” Taylor said.
One local algebra teacher, Pat King of Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School, notes her own methods of helping low-performing students.
“I plan ‘mastery’ quizzes of basic skills before the chapter test to be sure they have entry-level skills,” said King. “I also tutor every lunch and after school.”
While Taylor’s and King’s solutions can help low-performing students at the level of the individual classroom, the question remains how policy makers can address this issue and recognize each student’s strengths. Taylor once again draws from other research on the topic.
“Education policymakers [can] closely examine the deficiencies in student performance at lower grades and intervene early enough in students’ careers to minimize these deficiencies,” Taylor said.
King recognized this need to acknowledge individual students’ experiences with mathematics and put herself in students’ shoes.
“People who have learned mathematics forget what it is like when you don’t know. To think kids learn just by telling them to ‘solve’ and follow some recipe is shortsighted,” said King. “Sure, they can copy what I demonstrate today, but how will they apply it to a new situation tomorrow?”

RACHEL KUBICA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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