Solving Our Algebra Problem: Getting All Students through Algebra I to Improve Graduation Rates

Article excerpt

Algebra I has long served as a gateway to higher-level math courses and science courses, such as physics, and has been required for high school graduation as well as admission to most colleges. But taking algebra also can turn into a pathway for failure, from which some students never recover. In 2010, a national U.S. Department of Education study found that 80 percent of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for leaving school.

What's more, failure to pass state algebra assessments is a more frequent problem for minority students and contributes to a serious achievement gap in math. In the 2012 results of the California Standards Test (CST) in Algebra I, for instance, just 39 percent of Hispanic eighth graders scored proficient or advanced, as did 20 percent of Hispanic ninth graders. The results for African American students in the two grades were 32 percent and 16 percent, respectively. In contrast, white students tested at 60 and 34 percent proficiency or better.

It should come as no surprise that algebra poses a formidable challenge for all students, who must get used to a brave new world of variables, coefficients, and quadratic equations. The problems posed by algebra are numerous, though, say experts in mathematics education, math teachers, and administrators. So are the solutions that a number of school districts have implemented.

And while those district leaders are looking toward the Common Core State Standards in Algebra I to uniformly improve the quality of algebra teaching and learning, they also have resorted in the meantime to their own innovative approaches. They include screening for students equipped to take the course as early as eighth grade, more effectively engaging all algebra students in the classroom, creating real-life, concrete examples of algebra in everyday life, and better managing individual student progress.

The Problem with Algebra

"Algebra I is an entire math course that focuses for the first time on students' abstract thinking in math classes and on he symbols which represent that thinking. It's more conceptual," points out Nigel Nisbet, the director of content creation at the California-based MIND Research Institute, which develops interactive K12 math programs. Many students have considerable difficulty making the transition to that kind of thinking, Nisbet adds.

Coleman Kells, principal of the Earhardt Middle School in the Riverside (Calif.) Unified School District, says that while algebra is considered a critical course in a high school career, too many algebra courses have fallen short and left students confused and unsuccessful. "Algebra classes can be either doorways (to success in school and afterward) or barriers," Kells observes, adding that, too often, students have not understood the concepts and operations in that subject.

Daniel Chasen, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, insists that there are larger educational issues it stake in taking algebra, mostly for struggling students. "It's going to be a place where student disengagement from school is going to show up, especially for kids skeptical of schooling," he says.

A big part of the problem, adds Evie Eddins, a math program specialist for grades 6 through 12 at the Sarasota (Fla.) County Schools, is getting teachers to focus on real-world uses of the formulas and operations posed in algebraic problems, which would make the subject more understandable--and interesting--to students. "What's been lacking is the teachers' understanding of how the math is used--how the curved surface of a car headlight determines how that light shines on the road or how to determine the amount of paint required to cover the curved surface of a thermos," Eddins explains.

The Promise of the Common Core

As far as solutions go, math teachers and math curriculum specialists are anticipating, with some trepidation, the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. …

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