A new study argues that putting all eighth graders in algebra, something that California has pushed schools to do, sets up many students to fail. Kids who scored in the lowest levels on the seventh grade state math test had “almost no chance for success” when put into algebra the next year, it found.

The debate about how to encourage more kids to get into algebra — and how early — has been a long one. Algebra-for-all is supposed to abolish the tracking of African American and Latino students into easier math classes and prepare more students for careers in science and engineering.

The new study from EdSource, a nonprofit that aims to clarify complex educational issues, found that the percentage of students taking algebra in eighth grade has increased by 80 percent between 2003 and 2010. The changes are especially dramatic among low-income, African American and Latino students, a press release explains.

But pushing more students into eighth grade algebra also has risks. Here’s what I wrote about the algebra-for-all idea almost three years ago:

Within three years, California will require all eighth graders to take an algebra exam, spurring schools to enroll all students in algebra. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauded the algebra push for raising expectations and preparing California students to compete globally.

But as California prepares to thrust every eighth grader into algebra, San Diego math scores could serve as a cautionary tale of the risks of raising the bar, and the investment required to make it work.

San Diego Unified enrolls a higher percentage of its eighth graders in algebra than Los Angeles, San Francisco or Long Beach schools. Some of its middle schools offer algebra and only algebra to eighth graders, whether their students are ready or not. Yet fewer San Diego Unified students are scoring proficient on algebra tests than their peers in Long Beach or San Francisco — a statistic that reveals the perils of pushing all students into the same class … When students enroll in algebra and falter, they may lose enthusiasm for math — a cost that transcends the statistics.

In light of the mixed results, EdSource recommends that instead of just placing students in algebra in eighth grade, schools should look at differences in student readiness and place students accordingly.

I can’t let the topic of algebra go by without reminding readers about Einstein Academy, which revamped its earlier math instruction to better prepare students for algebra. The problem it found: “Einstein’s students were developing too many shortcuts and not enough understanding. While that had worked in the short term, it ultimately shortchanged kids.”

KPBS recently replayed a program about how the school changed its math instruction and the early results it has shown.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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