Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Study: Many 8th-graders can't handle algebra

Ohanian Comment: I
post this item in NCLB outrages because "behind
in Algebra" is so obvious a part of the whole
corporate-politico scam. I wonder how much
this study costs. They needed a study to tell
us that "Many 8th graders can't handle algebra?
" They could have asked a few 8th grade
teachers who would have told them that for

That said, I wonder just what skills On par
with a typical second-grader's
means. The
skills listed in that paragraph are certainly
not in the realm of second grade.

That said, I'll never forget reading Anno's
Mysterious Multiplying Jar
to 3rd graders
of "low" ability. The topic is factorials. You
know, factorial: in mathematics, the
factorial of a non-negative integer n, denoted
by n!, is the product of all positive integers
less than or equal to n.
Honest, I kid you
not: that was the plot of the book. I
guess you had to be there to witness how these
children "got it," and were transformed and
exhilarated by their own grasp of this concept.
I'll just say when I got to the last page, they
cheered and clapped. It truly was a
transforming moment, one of those very
satisfying moments as a teacher when you know
there's no place you'd rather be.

I had another transforming moment with
sophisticated math when I taught Neighborhood
Youth Corps kids to pass the GED. The fact that
I could whip them through exam prep in six
weeks made the New Jersey State Education
Department so nervous that they changed the
rules. It was easy to prep kids who could read
at least on the 10th grade level for the
Algebra part, which was trivial, but my star
student wasn't satisfied with my dismissive
test prep. He went to the library and looked up
"algebra" in the encyclopedia and taught
himself the basic concepts at a much more
substantive level. He made me realize that
algebra is a magic word for ghetto kids
routinely shut out.

I'm as nervous and outraged by talking about
something called "typical second grade skills"
as I am about insisting every eighth grader
should take algebra--and excluding 8th
grade teachers from the conversation. When will
the Standardistos accept the fact that kids are
different and need different things?

My goodness, doesn't that sound cornball?

By Greg Toppo

Peering beneath the hood of a national push to
have all students take algebra by eighth grade,
a new study out today finds that many of the
nation's lowest-performing middle-schoolers are
in way over their heads. They take algebra and
other advanced math courses before they've
mastered basic skills such as multiplication,
division and problem-solving with fractions.
For more than a decade, "algebra for everyone"
has been a high-minded mantra for the idea that
virtually all students should take algebra by
eighth grade. Since the mid-1990s, schools
nationwide have pushed more and more students
into challenging middle-school math courses.
Last year, 38% of eighth-graders were enrolled
in advanced math (Algebra I, Algebra II or

But when Brookings Institution researcher Tom
Loveless looked at the skills of eighth-graders
taking advanced math, he found something
startling: Between 2000 and 2005, the
percentage of very low-performing students in
advanced math classes more than tripled.

Using data from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, he found that among the
lowest-scoring 10% of kids, nearly 29% were
taking advanced math, despite having very low

How low? On par with a typical second-grader's,
Loveless says. They lack a solid foundation in
multiplication, division, fractions, decimals,
rounding or place value. Yet they were tackling
fairly sophisticated math.

"It's hard to teach a real algebra class if you
have kids who don't know arithmetic," he says.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Adam
Gamoran, who has advocated pushing more low-
achieving high schoolers into algebra classes,
says these students get more from algebra
classes than from general math classes. "In
their zeal to extend this reform ever more
broadly, some mistakes have been made," he
says, but he hopes the findings don't cause a
backlash against challenging low achievers to
do harder math.

Loveless, who directs Brookings' Brown Center
on Education Policy, estimates about 120,000
kids are inappropriately enrolled in classes
that are supposed to level the playing field
and too often don't. "It's really counterfeit
equity," he says, noting that the mismatch
inordinately affects black, Hispanic and poor
kids in urban schools.

Gamoran says algebra concepts "should be
introduced earlier in students' mathematical
studies ΓΆ€” it's not like there should be no
algebra and then, in eighth grade, all

Loveless agrees. But he says for kids who don't
have adequate skills in eighth grade, schools
should hold off on placing them in algebra
until high school.

Don't you wonder how many
members of Congress or how many members of the
White House team could answer this question?
Hey, how many Presidential and Vice-
Presidential candidates know the answer?


Sample problem on the NAEP test and percentage
of students who answered correctly. ("Misplaced
10th" refers to lowest-scoring 10% taking
advanced math.)

Question: There were 90 employees in a company
last year. This year the number of employees
increased by 10%. How many employees are in the
company this year?
Answer: 99

Percent answering correctly:

Overall: 36.5%
Advanced classes: 48.7%
Misplaced 10th: 9.8%

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.