New study: Boon in Algebra I in middle school doesn’t lead to higher math performance

A new study suggests pushing more kids into Algebra I in middle school may not pay off. (AJC photo)
A new study suggests pushing more kids into Algebra I in middle school may not pay off. (AJC photo)

A new Brookings study that is part of the annual Brown Center Report on American Education suggests that states have not seen the academic boost they expected from introducing Algebra 1 to a broader range of students in middle school.

This practice has been widely embraced in Georgia under the assumption that Algebra 1 in middle school better readies students for the more rigorous math now being taught in high school.

The study by researcher Tom Loveless seems to end up in the place that much education research does: The concept may haven been good in theory, but the execution stumbled because the Algebra I  was watered down to accommodate weaker students who normally would not have qualified for advanced math in middle school.

According to Education Week: (This is an excerpt. Please read full piece before commenting.)

A new analysis, however, suggests that increased enrollment hasn’t led to higher math performance for states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  The study was released last week as part of the annual report on education by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington.

Brookings senior fellow Tom Loveless tracked the number of students taking the 8th grade NAEP between 1990 and 2011 who reported taking an advanced math class, which could mean Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry, or an algebra course “stretched over two years.”

Between 2005 and 2011, 45 states boosted the number of 8th graders taking Algebra 1, with an average increase of 5.5 percent more of those students taking a math course at the level of Algebra 1 or higher.

Mr. Loveless found no connection, though, between increases in the number of 8th graders enrolled in Algebra 1 and states’ average NAEP math scores, even after controlling for changes in the states’ rates of children in poverty, English-language learners, and black and Hispanic students.

In states that did not increase their enrollments, students in 8th grade Algebra 1 courses performed, on average, 9.2 points better in 2011 than in 2005. In states with rising enrollments, by contrast, students in 8th grade Algebra 1 improved only 5.2 scale points during the same period.

Mr. Loveless said the study suggests that advanced math in middle school may be “watered down” as more students of different ability levels in math take the course. “Algebra in 8th grade used to be reserved for gifted students; if you were a high flier in math, you were moved up,” he said. As taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade becomes the “new normal,” he said, gifted math students are being pushed to take the subject in 7th grade, and take a geometry course in 8th.

“It doesn’t matter what we do as the norm, there will be another class created for gifted [students],” Mr. Loveless said.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

46 comments Add your comment

bootney farnsworth

March 28th, 2013
2:34 pm

lets take any improvements we can get


March 28th, 2013
2:39 pm

How many times do I have to say it? Stop acting like every kid has the same learning potential and schools will improve.


March 28th, 2013
2:43 pm

Math is a hard subject for most students. Academically speaking, most students are far more likely to have apptitudes in the humanities than in the sciences, especially math.

How many times have you ever heard educators complain because there just aren’t enough good History, English, Social Studies or Geography teachers? None? And, how many times have you heard how hard it is to find good math and science teachers? Many, to be sure.

Student’s apptitudes aren’t changing and all the “higher math perforamce” experiments in the world won’t make any difference.

Patrick Edmondson

March 28th, 2013
2:44 pm

Too many students can’t grasp the variable concept without concrete examples. The best I found was a program called the Hawaiian Method that taught using physical objects to introduce the concept. The T.O.P.S Science teacher made curriculum for gifted kids uses lentil beans and various sized containers to learn the concept with balancing equal weights or solving simple equations. Logo programming can also teach the concept.
Once students had that basic concept it was just math to them and most any kid could learn. My 4th graders were unflinching in approaching any problem in a level 1 Algebra test, and usually succeeded.


March 28th, 2013
2:59 pm

The recipe for failure was easy to see if educators, administration, and parents had known in advance that “the Algebra I was watered down to accommodate weaker students who normally would not have qualified for advanced math in middle school”. At least two of those above groups knew it.


March 28th, 2013
3:01 pm

I’d like to see how maturation effects math concepts.
Unlike some other subjects, I found that my math reasoning skills got better the older I got.


March 28th, 2013
3:23 pm

I know there are many reasons for the lack of progress in algebra at the middle school level: pedagogy, socio-cultural challenges, teacher training … but the front line reason for my kids was abysmal instruction. The strongest, most proficient math teachers were confined to the accelerated track while other teachers floundered with the spiral math that took kids in and out of algebra. They were thrown in the deep in with little warning and a shocking lack of training. DeKalb’s clinging to the “new” math sentenced years of students who flew through in-and-out algebra, geometry, statistics, and other math “subjects” without regard to mastery.

Just Sayin.....

March 28th, 2013
3:38 pm

“The concept may haven been good in theory, but the execution stumbled because the Algebra I was watered down to accommodate weaker students who normally would not have qualified for advanced math in middle school.”

Yep. The whole “lets toss the high performers and the low performers together, and the high performers will help/inspire the low performers” is the biggest load of nonsense I have EVER heard. They have been doing that in GA now for about 20 years, and it just plain doesn’t work.

Why do you think scores haven’t improved in 20 years? Its because the smart kids are working at a reduced rate. It holds our gifted/accelerated kids back. How long, really, does it take the scholastic “experts” to admit that this a 20 year long FAILED experiment?

I can tell you that Algebra I for ADVANCED students works wonders in schools… at least it did in mine. By the time I graduated HS, I had already passed two courses of calculus in college via dual enrollment. I KNOW what works, and I know that when you toss kids with unequal abilities in the same public school classroom, the class will only advance as fast as the slowest kids. That means that the brightest kids are screwed… robbed of a decent education.


March 28th, 2013
3:44 pm

Public education is increasingly about the lowest common denominator. The slowest kids control the progress of the class. The kids with the biggest handicaps, the least involved parents and the most disruptive home lives control the pace of learning.

As society’s consensus about conduct and aspirations has broken down, the very notion of a one size fits most public school has become increasingly unrealistic. The demands for more and more resources for the kids at the bottom of the achievement ladder makes the demise of the system closer by the day.


March 28th, 2013
3:52 pm

From what I’ve seen with my own eyes, middle school principals and parents of middle school children did not have the backbone to maintain high expectations for the students in algebra one. My kids had an excellent algebra teacher in 8th grade and performed well all the way through AP calculus. But I saw many parents complain about the teacher’s standards and their children were moved to other classes called algebra one, but were really nothing more than 7th grade math warmed over.

Until we as a nation develop the will to hold children accountable for learning, we will not make progress. Expecting the teachers to sugar coat everything and still raise achievement is a waste of time.

PS: The new evaluation scheme will not help remedy this problem.


March 28th, 2013
4:04 pm

Ahhhh! Alas! One of the Main reasons why SHORTER SUMMERS and making money takes a second seat to more important TASKS at HAND…..

More time in Math and Science Classes and Labs….less time television viewing, less video game playing, less time texting and phone conversations.

Our kids are falling woefully behind other Nations whose Standard of Living is less than OURS!
Over time the Balance has to swing….its in the MATH!

Can you not,See it?

A reader

March 28th, 2013
4:05 pm

I hate the way Math is taught in GA. There are too many concepts crammed into each year so the teachers are forced to fly thru all of the content. The students are not given the opportunity to practice and completely absorb one concept before being rushed into the next concept. And there is certainly no time for mastery of the concepts. Since most higher math concepts build upon lower concepts, if a student does not master the lower concepts then they have no chance of understanding the higher concepts.

I think it is telling that the states that do not try to cram algebra down the throats of every 8th grader are seeing higher gains NAEP math scores.

bleeding liberal

March 28th, 2013
5:06 pm

I guess indigo is the exhibit A for his/her own statement.


March 28th, 2013
5:10 pm

Unfortunately whe we claim to be making something more “accessible” it frequently means changing things to make them easier so that more ” you fill in the blank” kids can “succeed” and yet it is a step backwards or sideways for the students who ARE ready for the work.


March 28th, 2013
6:31 pm

There is no doubt that this was a concept to push harder by individuals who are not teachers (IMO) Teachers know that all students are not ready for some complicated concepts. However, teachers have been forced to push and the students are not mastering the standards.

Today most teachers have to do a great deal of repetition for mastery of concepts. Many students are not required by parents to study at home so this has changed how teachers have had to teach. The students who have parents who required them to study and do not accept that the student has nothing to do when he/she gets home are the students who exceed expectations in school.


March 28th, 2013
6:35 pm

bleeding liberal – 5:06

If you think my lack of math aptitude is funny, you are exhibit A for contemptible.

rational mind

March 28th, 2013
7:06 pm

The problem is people think in terms of courses, like algebra 1, 2, and geometry. There are common ideas in algebra 1, like solving simple linear equations, that can be readily accessible to 8th graders. Instead of trying to teach HS course called “algebra 1,” we should let students study mathematics that is accessible to them – based on what they have previously learned. If that includes common topics in the course, algebra 1 or HS geometry, that’s fine. When you try to teach a HS course to 8th graders (or even younger) that creates problems – specially since our schools (parents, too?) aren’t really good at clearly identifying those who are ready to handle such a course.

@ A reader:
What you describe is a pretty typical “American” problem – not just GA.

Truth in Moderation

March 28th, 2013
7:09 pm

Parents, just teach your kids at home. Use A BEKA curriculum (streaming video available), Khan Academy and Math U See. K-3rd, DRILL THE MATH FACTS, LEARN SKIP COUNTING, AND MEMORIZE UNITS OF MEASURE. Introduce geometry ideas early with origami. Introduce long division and multi-digit multiplication. Have them do lots of of problems TO MASTERY. Kumon workbooks K-6 are also good. If you continue to MASTER the basics diligently, it is easy to introduce Algebra in 6th-7th grade. One of mine completed Algebra 2 in 8th grade. In 10th grade he took the SAT and only missed one problem on the math portion. Another of mine HATES THE ARITHMETIC BASICS, but loves geometry, statistics and the logic behind Algebra. Yet, he drilled his math facts starting at age 4. It took him a long time and a few tears, but he MASTERED THEM, and now more advanced math comes much easier for him. Children learn math differently, and it is hard to teach a large mixed group.


March 28th, 2013
7:47 pm

The only way they are going to make a significant difference in educational achievement is if they make schooling mandatory from age 3 or 4 like it is in all those countries with which the US is competing. If you enter kindergarten at 5 or 6 not knowing how to read or count, no amount of early algebra is going to make a difference.


March 28th, 2013
8:47 pm


March 28th, 2013
9:16 pm

I find these results very intersting and want to read the detailed accounting. While I did not do any scientific study along with this, I could have predicted that forcing algebra on every middle school student would not have had the desired result: readiness for high school and readiness for college–everyone ready. Nor is is productive to force students to move on in any curriculum until ready. For years I have fought against moving on without readiness. Students become frustrated and feel hopeless. The hopelessness leads to drop out. With so many people getting doctorates in the online environment, many studies are greatly flawed and you can find a study to support any hypothesis you choose to promote. When districts talk about scientific, research-based strategies, I want to laugh. But it really isn’t funny at all. The students lose again, as they are pushed, pushed, pushed.

Attentive Parent/Invisible Serfs Collar

March 28th, 2013
9:16 pm

But this is also the way the Common Core is set up. If you are advanced you end up in a class with less able or interested older students. Honors now just means ahead of grade level. No difference in coverage. So it’s not just a matter of having watered down all algebra I. All math gets turned into real life applications and group projects and mixed ability with the most able being younger.

Like reading, the real argument is with abstract symbol systems.

For the sake of all can learn, we are creating educational systems where virtually no one knows anything accurately. But hardly anyone recognizes it. Except some teachers who must keep quiet or lose their careers.

And all the students have such expectations because they have their degrees. That more and more are not worth the paper they were written on. Much less the expense incurred.

Inman Parker

March 28th, 2013
9:16 pm

Most MS Kids can do Algebra I in one year, but my preference is go make it a two year course in 7th and 8th grade, and take your time! What’s the rush?

Pride and Joy

March 28th, 2013
9:18 pm

The problem is the teachers in the fifth through eighth grade who cannot teach math, not the students.
So many low-achieving education majors are now teachers of math in 5-8. Students need teachers who can teach it and they are in short supply as most women who do well in math chose more rigorous courses of study in college and chose more rigorous occupations.

Mother of 2

March 28th, 2013
9:21 pm

Patrick Edmondson is on to something.

father of 2

March 28th, 2013
10:38 pm


What other countries do you have in mind? I know for sure that in Japan, students don’t start schools until they turn 6. They start schools a year later than most of our kids yet by the time they reach 8th grade, they are about 1.5 years ahead. Their school years are longer, but they also include several non-instruction days – like field days, all-day field trips, etc. The number of hours determined by their Ministry of Education is less than 180 class periods (45 minutes for elementary, 50 for secondary).


March 28th, 2013
10:40 pm

I sure hope those middle school algebra students have good eyesight. Maybe there’s some theory that if you write really small on the dry erase board students will strain their eyes to figure out what you’ve written.

Patrick Edmondson

March 29th, 2013
12:02 am

Pride and Joy is sadly right. Too many of my colleagues in Elementary and middle schools in which I taught, believed in the “math gene” and felt they didn’t have it. Algebra scared them in general and some declared they would have to quit teaching before being able to teach Algebra. They communicate this to their students and make the first job for later teachers, to overcame this fear enough to approach with an open mind.
Yes other countries start younger, but they also provide good food and full medical care at schools, plus math teachers are held in high regard, not seen as the enemy in parent’s nightmares from their pasts.

N. GA Teacher

March 29th, 2013
12:25 am

Most posts here are great, especially those by Just sayin and willie jo. Since the days of Piaget most math educators have known that most people (let alone middle school children) don’t succeed in algebra because they cannot reason abstractly. Due largely to this, algebra 1 (stupidly forced on freshmen despite most not mentally mature enough) was for many years the most failed course in high school (despite limited success in cognitive scaffolding using concrete examples, etc. as Patrick Edmondson earlier described). Even colleges are finding that the greatest academic barrier to graduation are the standard freshman college algebra courses and the prerequisite developmental algebra courses. These students may never be able to reason abstractly, and so fail the courses until they give up or are let go. Until the 1970s high schools dealt with this very practically: they tracked students by ability and/or career aspiration, which allowed kids to avoid the dreaded college prep Algebra I (A later variant in Georgia were the tech prep math classes under QCCs, but even the dilute “applied algebra” was routinely failed, posing a severe threat to graduation). Now, on top of an already existing flawed system, we have a new “keep up with the international Joneses” common core, in which middle school kids now endure (with most not understanding) math topics previously untouched until ninth or tenth grade (or never touched by some tracks!). Like my fellow writers, I agree that we need to cultivate the elite percent of young math students who CAN do the work, but we need to do a much better job of fitting the individual with the proper math level. And yes, we have a huge problem with non-cognitive issues like poverty, divorce, poor attitudes, etc. that further compound this problem.

Another comment

March 29th, 2013
12:27 am

My daughter’s 5th grade teacher declared at Parent open house, that she was bad at Math. My feeling was she should have been fired on the spot. Then she had her own children attending Lovett. I am sure the Lovett teacher’s would not dare say that at open house.

Steven Gourrier

March 29th, 2013
6:38 am

Blame the kids, and their parents for them not being smart enough, and blame the teachers some more for not teaching them well enough right?….wrong again. If one is willing to do the work, one can get smarter in all subjects. Exposure is the key. Start exposing our kids to what we want and expect from them earlier in life, and we can start turning some of these results around. Everyone knows algebra is one of the gateways to get into college, and if our desire is to keep our college attendance and completion at the dismal completion rate that it presently is continue to blame the kids, the schools, and our society for not exposing our kids to the basics of math and science that all other civilized countries invest heavily to make sure their kids master so that their lives will improve in the 21st century.

Pride and Joy

March 29th, 2013
8:44 am

Algebra 1 is NOT hard. It is ridiculous to think that any child cannot learn Algebra 1.
Algebra 1 is just math with a letter instead of a blank.
Oila. The second one is algebra.
When kids cannot master algebra 1 it means they never learned basic math.
Every child (emphasis on child) can master basic math and when they don’t, the elementary schools are to blame.
Algebra 2 is real algebra. It does take some smarts and effort to learn real algebra and it is likely not every high school kid can learn it.

Pride and Joy

March 29th, 2013
8:48 am

Bravo Another COmment who said:
“My daughter’s 5th grade teacher declared at Parent open house, that she was bad at Math. My feeling was she should have been fired on the spot.”
WHen a fifth grade math teaching spot opened up at my child’s APS school I told a mom who just graduated with an education degree because I knew she was looking for work.
She said she wouldn’t apply because she was (wait for it)
If ANY adult with a high school diploma cannot effectively teach fifth grade math…they need to give back their high school diploma.

same ole same ole

March 29th, 2013
9:13 am

i have been saying for years that its not pushing Alg to the masses but taking math concepts and relating them to industry. Carpentry class should be paired with Geometry. Invite industry to a summer workshop for teachers so teachers can see what math industry uses. MEASUREMENT; students have to know how to measure and what decimal numbers mean. Students and teachers need to learn a little thing called tolerance and I dont mean getting along with others.
Instead we get these ivory tower decrees that “know best”. One graduation track, all college prep. PLEASE, the ppl in Altanta have NOT a clue

cautiously optimistic

March 29th, 2013
9:33 am

I love math and am good at it, and I am a girl. My daughter on the other hand, does not find it easy. She is smart and capable, but struggles and eventually gets it. We intentionally did not put her in accelerated math. IMHO the math curriculum is too fast and too rigid. Core curriculum has made this worse. We all know that all kids are not good at all things. They are different. Here’s a novel concept, let’s differentiate!

Pride and Joy

March 29th, 2013
9:48 am

same ole same old.
Your statement is very sad. You wrote “its not pushing Alg to the masses but taking math concepts and relating them to industry.
Algebra IS taking math concepts and relating them to industry and real life situations.
It is so sad that YOU are so bad at math that you don’t understand it.

Pride and Joy

March 29th, 2013
9:50 am

Cautiously optimistic, you said about your daughter “She is smart and capable, but struggles and eventually gets it. ”
That indicates she has a good work ethic and will succeed. She has experienced that if she puts in the work she will succeed and that is a life lesson I wish for everyone. You don’t want a kid who just gets it with no effort.
I predicat your daughter will go to college and succeed in her work life. Please encourage her to continue in math.

Pride and Joy

March 29th, 2013
9:53 am

About this comment “Invite industry to a summer workshop for teachers so teachers can see what math industry uses. ”
So we tax payers are supposed to pour more money into educating teachers?
Teachers should never graduate with an education degree if they don’t already know math.
We need to put money into the kids, not the teachers.
If a teacher doesn’t know how to relate math to the real world they need to get FIRED.


March 29th, 2013
10:33 am

My grade school (30 years ago) system had a policy banning Algebra from being taught before the 9th grade. My sixth-grade teacher taught it anyway; he just called it “variables” instead of Algebra. Pretty much the whole class picked it up, but thanks to the useless new-math nonsense we were subjected to in the 7th and 8th grades (which turned out to have no purpose at all except to fill time), most everybody had to start over in the 9th, and the entire math sequence beyond arithmetic (Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry) was limited to four years. The end result was that almost no students were exposed to Calculus before going to college.

That was not a fun deficiency to have to overcome in engineering school.

rural juror

March 29th, 2013
10:56 am

We have gone through too many changes in the math curriculum. When I started teaching math it was Alg1, geom, Alg2, Adv.Alg.&Trig with QCCs. then GPS became Math1, Math2, Math3, Math4. Now Common Core Coordinate Algebra, Analytic Geom., Adv. Algebra, Pre-calc. Math teachers are still using QCC text books because no texts were written for these curriculums (I want to burn those CorePlus books). GOOD GRIEF!

Truth in Moderation

March 29th, 2013
4:17 pm

“Algebra 1 is NOT hard. It is ridiculous to think that any child cannot learn Algebra 1.
Algebra 1 is just math with a letter instead of a blank.
Oila. The second one is algebra.
When kids cannot master algebra 1 it means they never learned basic math.
Every child (emphasis on child) can master basic math and when they don’t, the elementary schools are to blame.”

You are absolutely correct. K-3rd is a VERY important time for math basics. If students MASTER the math facts, understand PLACE VALUE (use hands on curriculum like Math U See) and drill, drill, drill, then everything else falls into place. Algebra 1 in 6th or 7th grade is EASY.

same ole same ole

March 29th, 2013
10:44 pm


well if we do fire those teachers that don’t know how to relate it the real world we would only be left with about half the teachers. you have got to know that elementary and middle school math teachers do not have to have a math degree, right? working math in a classroom is a seperate animal than using math in industry. not trying to slight you at all, but do you know how to calculate the amount of concrete needed for a job? determine the cubic inches of an engine that has been bored to 4.05 in with a stroke of 3.8 inches using 8 pistons?

Pride and Joy

March 30th, 2013
8:50 pm

same old same old.
Yes, I know elementary and middle shcoll math teachers do not have math degrees and that is part of the problem. They have education degrees which are not worth the paper they are printed on…
ANYone with a high school diploman who cannot do middle school math should lose their HS diploma.
It’s elementary.
ANd yes, I know how to calculate concrete for a job and other things you mentioned. Middle school math isn’t difficult and neither is high school algebra 1 and geometry.
Algebra 2, Trig and Analysis do require some effort and some smarts but certainlyh not middle school and certainly not elementary school math.
The problem is we have undereducated teachers.

Pride and Joy

March 30th, 2013
8:52 pm

Thank you, Truth in Moderation. I appreciate it.


March 31st, 2013
2:39 pm

Totally in agreement with “Truth In Moderation” and “Pride and Joy” above. Algebra 1 is not hard at all if students have mastered the basic arithmetic computations taught in K-3. Look up “Russian School of Math” and “Singapore Math”. Under these two systems, algebra is taught from 3rd grade on.

Ever wonder why the majority of Mathcounts national finalists in recent years are the first generation US-born children of skilled Mainland Chinese immigrants? Forget about all other pan-Asian students . Communist China adopted the Soviet math curriculum in the 1950s, the best and yet not known here in the U.S. There is a historic reason dating back probably 500 years why Russians have been so good at math and teaching math.


April 5th, 2013
7:26 pm

I have a bright idea. Hows about we STOP DOING WHAT CLEARLY IS NOT WORKING.

The solution to a generation not doing well in math is NOT to just teach it sooner. Change how you teach it! Jesus why will people not see this! We suck at teaching algebra, it needs to change. And students learn at different paces. We need to do like the other nations do at math. They teach a topic, and spend MOST of the time reviewing what they learned. In America, we teach a topic (just the formula) and tell students to repeat it in homework. The next few days we are on something new. Didn’t learn it? Too bad, you are left behind.

Not to mention Algebra and higher math is literally just a weeder course to thin the herd in pursuit of a degree.

Mark my words. We will continue to fall behind in math until a Liberal Arts major with common sense actually comes along and applies real world problem solving and changes the entire system. All that logic, reasoning and critical thinking has clearly missed all the math grads that currently run the show.

Math Grad: “Why are most of our students failing Algebra? Hmmm, maybe if I continue to do the exact same thing I do now, but do it earlier, they will learn it all! Yeah, that makes sense.”

Everyone else: “These are the smart ones?”