Should States Think Twice About Forcing All Eighth Graders Into Algebra?

Twenty years ago, most middle-school kids spent most of their day in tracked classes. Even if they had bland names like English A, B, or C, every kid knew if they were in the smart or the dumb class, and research indicated that the kids most hurt by tracking were the kids at the bottom.

Today, as a result of efforts to close the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students, tracking has all but disappeared in most middle schools, the lone holdouts being math classes. But their days may be numbered as well. California and Minnesota are leading one of the newest trends in education: starting in 2011, all the eighth graders in those states will be required to take algebra. The hope is that by lifting the bar for all eighth graders, more will be ready for higher-level classes in high school and better prepared for college when they get there. Other states are expected to follow suit soon.  

But there is growing concern among some educators that the push to detrack math might not be good for everyone, particularly if that means that students who aren’t ready for advanced math are put into fast-paced classes anyway. In a study that came out last year, Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution education researcher, did an analysis of  eighth-grade students scoring in the bottom 10 percent on the national math test. He found that almost three out of every 10 were enrolled in advanced math classes (algebra I, algebra II, and geometry), even though their test scores indicated their skills were typical of a second grader. Most were also minority students enrolled at inner-city schools.

In a new study released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Loveless follows up with research that reveals that middle schools with more tracks (typically two or three) had significantly more math pupils performing at the higher levels ("advanced" and "proficient") on tests and fewer students at the bottom (the "needs improvement" and  "failing" levels). He found the reverse at schools with one math track: they had more kids who were failing or needed to improve, compared with the schools that had multiple tracks.

The study, which focused on data from middle schools in Massachusetts, one of the lead states in the detracking movement, also found that schools populated by lower-income urban kids were more likely to have dropped tracking for math classes, while schools serving wealthier suburban kids were more likely to have held onto the practice.

Loveless concedes that his results revealed a correlation between detracking and lower achievement—not cause and effect. It could be, he says, that the schools serving the lower-income kids had a more homogenous, and low-performing, group of students to begin with than the higher-income schools. The decision to track or not to track might have been in response to their student mix. “They might have embraced the policy that fit their kids,” Loveless said, “but it’s also possible that this is the effect of detracking.”

More research will need to be done, he says, but this study reinforces others that have warned that high-achieving students could be particularly hurt by detracking, a concern hard to ignore at a time when America is desperately trying to boost its output of high-performing math and science students. If nothing else, the mounting number of studies warning of risks associated with detracking may encourage more states to take a wait-and-see approach before following California and Minnesota’s lead.