A Formula for Failure


For decades, algebra was considered a gateway course, a filter to sift the college-bound from the masses of American high school students. Today, it is considered the great equalizer -- no longer the province of the academic elite, but a linchpin of the campaign to put college within reach of every child. That’s why every student in California must pass algebra to graduate. State and national curriculum standards go further and recommend that algebra be taken in eighth grade.

But the “algebra before acne” movement is encountering resistance. Despite teacher training, math coaches and a special path for the math-challenged that spreads two semesters of algebra over four, 92% of eighth- and ninth-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District failed to score at the proficient level on the state algebra exam last spring. And 23% of the eighth-graders enrolled in algebra in the 2003-2004 school year failed. Those results are forcing district officials to rethink their ambitious effort to provide equal opportunity by force-feeding algebra to unprepared, unmotivated students.

Algebra-for-all is a worthy goal. Students deprived of a chance to master its problem-solving capabilities are handicapped educationally. But the mandate ignores the realities of overcrowded schools, a shortage of qualified math teachers and spotty early preparation. Too many students finish seventh grade still struggling with decimals, percentages and fractions. Few eighth-grade teachers are prepared to transition them to abstract thinking. The distractions of big, noisy classes and a pace dictated by district experts inevitably leave some behind.


The state is feeling pressure to back off a little and bless algebra readiness programs for low-scoring eighth-graders. Long term, the real solution is better preparation in the early grades, so that algebraic terms and concepts aren’t such a foreign language.

But all this raises a larger question: What does it matter if students learn algebra in eighth grade if they are left in the dark in high school about such basic college-access issues as when to take the SAT and how to apply for financial aid? That happens too often in California, which ranks last in the nation in the ratio of counselors to students. It would take more than an A in algebra to understand why we encourage all students to aim for college, then leave so many behind.