Algebra acts as a gatekeeper for high school graduation and post-secondary success. Students who pass Algebra 1 by the end of ninth grade are more likely to take advanced mathematics courses, graduate from high school, and succeed in college. Yet persistent inequities in access to rigorous algebra due to issues of placement, preparation, and quality of instruction have kept the gate closed for a large proportion of students, particularly minority and low-income students. In response, “Algebra for All” policies have been implemented whereby all students are required to take Algebra 1 by a designated grade level—typically eighth or ninth grade. While such policies are on target in their intention to increase the number of students who successfully complete Algebra 1 in a timely way, evidence also shows that for too many students, these policies by themselves have neither increased mathematics achievement nor advanced greater opportunity. Rather, they often result in the watering down of Algebra 1 content and significantly increase the number of students who fail the course. These consequences are concentrated among underprepared students, whom the policies were designed to serve in the first place. As such, the worthy goals of Algebra for All may only be realized when a rigorous approach to Algebra is maintained for all students, and when necessary systems are in place to prepare and support all students to be successful. The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) now provides clearer and more rigorous expectations for the algebra content all students should learn, but the articulation of such standards is only a starting point. Algebra policy, therefore, should include provisions for equitably maintaining this level of rigor for all students, while providing a system of supports to: (1) better prepare students to succeed before taking Algebra 1; (2) enhance learning opportunities for underprepared learners during Algebra 1; and (3) enhance teaching capacity to support all learners, particularly those who are underprepared to succeed in Algebra 1.
Download the policy brief: Algebra and the Underprepared Learner