updated 9/22/2008 2:09:14 AM ET 2008-09-22T06:09:14

More kids than ever are taking algebra in eighth grade but not necessarily learning more math, private researchers report.

In fact, while eighth-graders are doing better on national math tests, students in advanced classes are faring worse, according to the study being released Monday by the Brookings Institution.

"We have kids who are misplaced in their math classes," said Tom Loveless, the study's author. "They don't know very much math at all and yet they're taking courses in advanced math."

The study takes a provocative look at a subject many people view as a matter of racial equality. Once unavailable to many minority and poor children, algebra is becoming widely accepted as a must-have for eighth-graders.

Algebra a 'gateway'
Algebra is considered a "gateway" course for higher learning. Students who take it that year are on track for calculus as seniors. President Clinton made eighth-grade algebra a priority, and an influential 1995 book labeled algebra "The New Civil Right."

Enrollment doubled from 1990 to 2007, when nearly one-third of all eighth-graders were taking algebra. In July, California decided that all eighth-graders should take algebra; Minnesota did so in 2006.

But the study says many kids sitting in algebra class are unprepared. Eighth-grade math scores have dropped for algebra students even as overall scores have improved.

The study was based on The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card. That assessment is the only uniform benchmark of how well kids are learning.

In particular, the report looked at low-achieving students. Among the findings:

  • Enrollment of low achievers — those who score in the bottom 10 percent — has more than doubled in eighth-grade algebra.
  • The overwhelming number of low-achieving students are black and Hispanic and attend big urban, high-poverty schools where they are more likely to fall through the cracks.
  • Teachers of low achievers have less experience, fewer formal credentials and weaker math training.

The study is alarming to some advocates who worry its focus will add to an argument that minority and low-income kids should not take the class. The report's title is "The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra"

"So what's the alternative — to let them continue in eighth grade to take low-level or basic math?" said William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor of statistics and education.

"Why would we do that to our children, especially to these minority kids who need to be given a better shot to succeed?" he said. "My big worry is people will use this to say, `Aha, see, it ain't working, let's put these kids back where they belong."'

Better preparation urged
Schmidt pointed out that kids in dozens of other countries are required take algebra in eighth grade or even earlier. Yet he agrees with Loveless that U.S. students desperately need better preparation.

Math is not like other subjects, said R. James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematician. It is hierarchical, with first-grade math forming the foundation for second-grade math and so on.

"It takes six to eight years of solid math to prepare kids to be ready to take algebra," Milgram said. "So if you do not learn the support, you collapse at a certain point. You simply cannot go further," he said.

Milgram did not work on this study, but he has worked with Loveless on other research.

Vern Williams, a nationally recognized math teacher in Fairfax County, Va., said the campaign for eighth-grade algebra can result in classes that aren't really algebra.

"Unless a kid is ready for a real algebra course, you do one of two things: either you give the kid a low grade, which means you're admitting the kid wasn't prepared, or you make the course watered-down," Williams said.

"It's algebra in name only," he said.

That is another point the study makes. In the end, Loveless argues it does more harm than good to put unprepared students in what he called "fake" algebra classes taught by under-prepared teachers.

"It's not a good thing, and it does not lead to equity," Loveless said. "It might make everyone feel better, but the whole arrangement is counterfeit."

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