Algebra is Key to Closing Academic and Opportunity Gaps
A Call to Push Algebra Completion for Eighth Graders
Rodolpho Loureiro, Urban Assembly Math Program Manager
Twenty years ago, a guidance counselor attempted to make a decision that would have had a major effect on my academic and professional trajectory due to her own biases. I had just completed sixth grade and my math teacher recommended that I enroll in Algebra 1 the following year. However, my guidance counselor (who barely knew who I was), opposed the request, despite the fact that I was excelling in math. Luckily my mother, a hard-working undocumented immigrant, successfully advocated for my enrollment into Algebra 1 as a seventh-grader. Years later, I would understand that this decision was a pivotal moment that led to my admission to the University of Pennsylvania and opened a number of postsecondary opportunities. After graduating from college, I decided to become an educator and advocate for Black and Brown youth so that they can reach their greatest potential in the classroom.
Many students — notably Black and Brown students, continue to be systematically excluded from taking the math courses they are capable of taking. Most students should take Algebra 1 in 8th grade in order to ensure their academic and postsecondary opportunities, yet many do not. Educators, guidance counselors, and school leaders should work together to ensure that students complete an early sequence of math courses so that they can access the greatest suite of academic and postsecondary options.
Early access to courses like Algebra is an equity issue. Math is one of the most tracked subjects in the country, and by not having access to a suite of math courses, schools increase opportunity gaps, strikingly for Black and Brown students. According to the US Department of Education, only 24% of students across the country took Algebra 1 as 8th graders in 2016. However, when this data is disaggregated, 34% of Asian students and 24% of White students took the course in 8th grade, compared to 13% of students Hispanic students and 12% of Black students. Further research shows that “enrollment in Algebra or higher is associated with higher mathematics scores on assessments given at the end of the eighth grade. Clearly, there is a discrepancy in options for students.
Additionally, Algebra 1 is often a prerequisite course to higher-level mathematics, which is typically an entrance requirement for many selective colleges and universities. If these students do not have access to these higher-level math courses, they may be denied admission to these selective colleges or have to be placed in remedial math courses.
By ensuring that more Black and Brown 8th graders take Algebra 1, we might be able to strengthen pipelines to STEM. According to the Pew Research Center, “Black people make up 11% of the U.S. workforce overall, but represent 9% of STEM workers, while Hispanics comprise 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEAM workers. And among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Blacks are just 7% and Hispanics are 6% of the STEM workforce.” Completing Algebra 1 in 8th grade will allow Black and Brown students to take different math courses like Calculus, Statistics, Financial Literacy, Geometry in high school, increasing the likelihood of finding a math topic that interests them.
Students learn at different rates and have different needs, so a mandate for all Black and Brown students to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade would not be fair. However, with strategic planning and intervention, school leaders and educators can work together to weave all common core middle school standards within sixth and seventh grade, making it possible for every single 8th grader to feel prepared to take Algebra 1. Concurrently, middle school staff should continue to adopt effective intervention systems for students struggling in math, as they are always a key component to achieving student mastery.
By taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade, the immediate and long-term opportunities for young people increase exponentially. School leaders and staff- we have to do all we can to make sure that students are able to enroll in this pivotal course.