On June 12, the District 65 school board approved a policy to make Algebra I the standard mathematics course for eighth graders. For parents who may not have thought much about high school algebra since, say high school, the new policy may raise questions about the course and when it should be taken. The information provided in this essay summarizes some relevant information about Algebra I enrollment. It is particularly intended for parents whose children have met the District 65 criteria for placement into Algebra I in seventh or even sixth grade, as they consider whether earlier enrollment in Algebra I is the best choice for their children. 

When is Algebra I taught?

Algebra I is traditionally taught as a ninth grade course. However, over the past 30 years, the percentage of students who enroll in Algebra I while in middle school has been rising. Over one third of students nationally complete Algebra I prior to high school, though the percentage in District 65 has been much higher. According to data provided by District 65, over 80% of students enter ETHS having completed Algebra I in middle school, with most of those completing the course in eighth grade. Historically, a small percentage of District 65 students (1–2%) enroll in Algebra I in sixth grade, while 15-20% enroll in seventh grade.

One reason students are encouraged to enroll in Algebra I prior to high school is so they are in course pathway that leads to Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus without having to take an extra mathematics course while in high school. Students can enroll in AP mathematics courses only after successfully completing four high school courses: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and Precalculus. A student who completes Algebra I in eighth grade is on track to take AP mathematics as a senior; students who complete Algebra I in seventh or sixth grade become eligible to enroll in Calculus as juniors or sophomores.

How does early enrollment in Algebra I affect other middle school mathematics courses?

Traditionally, students who enrolled in Algebra I prior to high school simply skipped a year of middle-grades mathematics. However, skipping a year of middle grades math means that students miss a full year of the curriculum, potentially creating a big hole in the mathematical background needed for success in Algebra I. As a result, District 65 and other districts now accelerate students mostly by covering the curriculum more quickly, essentially covering three years of middle grades mathematics in two years. With Algebra I now the default course for eighth graders in District 65, this will become the norm for nearly all students. The pace quickens even more for students who enroll in Algebra I in seventh or sixth grade, with some content from the middle grades curriculum likely to be skipped.

What are some implications on student learning of acceleration of mathematics courses?

The most obvious result of accelerating the pace of the curriculum is that students are required to cram more mathematical content into the school year. This means that the time needed to develop a solid conceptual understanding of fundamental math concepts such as fractions, decimals, proportions and ratios, variables, negative numbers, and coordinate graphs—all essential for success in Algebra I and beyond—gets significantly shortened. For some students, this will work, but for many students, the quicker pace may hinder their ability to learn foundational concepts and skills. 

Problem solving and reasoning activities are at the heart of all mathematics but require time to teach. In accelerated classes, these important activities often get skipped in order to squeeze in more content. These lost activities often are those that tend to give meaning to the mathematics content and create interest among students, motivating them to enjoy and want to pursue mathematics.

How has Algebra I changed with the Common Core State Standards?

In 2010, Illinois adopted the Common Core State Standards as the state’s learning standards for reading and mathematics. In the Common Core Standards for Mathematics, the middle grades mathematics curriculum is more demanding than in the past. Much of the content that was traditionally taught in Algebra I courses is now part of the regular Grade 8 curriculum. The current Algebra I course now includes topics previously taught in more advanced courses and new content in statistics. The more challenging content in the updated middle-grades courses and in Algebra I creates additional challenges for accelerating the instructional pace in mathematics courses.

Will my child be less prepared to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) if she or he is not accelerated early in mathematics?

Calculus is generally the mathematical entry point into a STEM major in college, with most STEM majors requiring at least a semester of calculus. As indicated earlier, a major reason for completing Algebra I in middle school is to enter a course pathway that leads to AP math courses (calculus or statistics). Taking Algebra I in sixth or seventh grade can lead to enrollment in the more rigorous version of AP Calculus, or, in the case of the small number of students who take Algebra I in sixth grade, in even more advanced college mathematics while still in high school. For mathematically well-prepared, interested, and highly motivated students, this can be beneficial.

The most extensive study of college calculus instruction indicates that more students now enroll in Calculus in high school than in college, though many of those students end up retaking all or part of Calculus in college. The researchers noted that while there are advantages to enrolling in AP Calculus, they and others have begun questioning “the rush to calculus,” especially for students who need more time to develop strong conceptual foundations and problem solving skills. They noted that many students will likely benefit more from a high school mathematics experience that ends with a strong Precalculus course in the senior year than rushing prematurely into AP Calculus.

What are the potential pitfalls of enrolling in Algebra I early?

Enrolling in Algebra I in sixth or seventh grade does not make sense if students do not take math courses in all four years of high school. A goal of completing the three-year mathematics graduation requirement early is not a good reason to enroll early in Algebra I. While in most universities, completing Calculus I in high school is not required for entry into majors in engineering, science, and mathematics, enrollment in a mathematics course as a senior in high school significantly increases the likelihood of avoiding remedial or non-credit-bearing mathematics courses in college. 

Premature enrollment in advanced mathematics courses can sometimes have negative consequences regarding students’ enjoyment of and interest in mathematics. It is not unusual for students who are in the advanced mathematics course pathway in high school not to pursue mathematics-based careers in college. Some of those students report “burning out” mathematically, developing feelings of inadequacy in mathematics due to the fast pace and marginal interest, and coming to dislike mathematics in high school. Thus, when considering the math course for 6th or 7th grade, it is important to consider longer term goals and interests.

Finally, there are significant policy implications related to tracking and acceleration in mathematics that are not discussed here. It is worth noting, for example, that District 65’s decision to accelerate nearly all students into Algebra I in eighth grade was based upon equity concerns related to tracked courses. It remains to be seen whether, mathematically, that will be the right decision for many students.

When should my child enroll in Algebra I?

District 65’s new policy means that Algebra I is the standard eighth grade course. As such, nearly all District 65 students will automatically be placed in a mathematics course sequence that leads to AP mathematics courses in high school. This, in and of itself, will be a challenge for most students.

For some of the students who meet the District 65 criteria for earlier enrollment, it may be appropriate to enroll in Algebra I earlier than eighth grade. These students should have an extremely strong mathematical foundation and be able to handle the significantly increased instructional pace. They also should have a deep interest in mathematics and a definite plan to enroll in advanced mathematics courses throughout high school. What are the student’s mathematical goals and the motivation for accelerating? What courses will she or he take at the other end of the course pathway? Their mathematical needs should be the guiding reason for decisions about when to enroll in the course. As you make this important decision, it is advisable to consult with your child’s mathematics teachers, and/or to contact the ETHS Mathematics Department chairperson for more information.

Mr. Gartzman is Senior Associate, UChicago STEM Education University of Chicago. An extended version of this essay can be found at evanstonroundtable.com.