Argument Against 8th Grade Algebra Doesn’t Add Up

Reviewer finds Brookings report overreaches for its conclusions

Contact: Teri Battaglieri, (517) 203-2940; (email)
Carol Corbett Burris, (516) 599-0839; (email)

EAST LANSING, Mi. (Oct. 14, 2008)—A recent Brookings Institution report concludes that as more students are placed in 8th-grade algebra classes, too many are ill-prepared and are dragging down their higher-achieving peers. A new review of the report, however, finds that its analysis provides little or no support for its headline-making conclusions.

The report “The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra” was reviewed for the Think Twice project by Dr. Carol Corbett Burris, who is a researcher and the principal of a New York school with a successful accelerated mathematics program.

At the time of its publication, the Brookings report received positive press coverage in multiple media outlets, including USA Today, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Education Week, and the Associated Press. None of these newspapers probed the report’s weaknesses, as set forth in the new Burris review.

Enrollment in 8th-grade algebra is on the rise. Based on analysis of math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Brookings report contends that, as a result of a misguided national push, as many as 28% of such algebra students are low achievers, lacking prerequisite skills in arithmetic. It further contends that well-prepared students learn less due to the presence of low achievers in class. The report recommends that algebra placement be based on student readiness, not grade level.

Specifically, the Brookings report finds no relationship between the percentage of students taking algebra in eighth grade and that state’s scores on the NAEP and therefore no pattern of higher scores in states where a higher proportion of students take advanced math in eighth grade. Because no correlation exists, the report reasons that there is no benefit to the policy. Similarly, the report finds that as the proportion of students taking algebra in eighth grade has increased, there has been a slight decrease in the average NAEP scores of students in those advanced math classes. The conclusion drawn from this is that well-prepared students in advanced math classes learn less due to the presence of lower achievers in the class.

In her review, Burris faults the report for scanty reference to prior research and the omission of “the key empirical studies that prompted the call for algebra for all students in the 8th grade” as well any reference to the existing, peer-reviewed studies “that indicate that lower achievers in mathematics learn more when they are in challenging classes with higher achieving peers.” Moreover, she writes, the report ignores plausible alternative interpretations of the data.

But the biggest flaw, according to Burris, is the report’s methodology. Although the report itself acknowledges that its correlational findings should not be used to argue that causal relationships have been found, it then continues on to do just that. In reality, the data analyses presented in the report simply cannot support its policy conclusions. The correlations tell us almost nothing about the policy questions the report attempts to answer.

Burris concludes her review with a short summary of a peer-reviewed, longitudinal study examining the effects of an accelerated middle-school mathematics curriculum enrolling all 8th grade students in algebra in the diverse suburban district where she now serves as a principal. The study, which she helped conduct, found that students of all races and income groups enrolled in the accelerated program demonstrated greater success on a variety of achievement measures.

While Burris commends the Brookings report’s call for more research and for doing more to adequately prepare students to learn algebra, she criticizes its final conclusion—that universal 8th grade algebra is ill-advised—as “not substantiated by the data presented.”

Declining NAEP math scores that provide the impetus for the Brookings recommendations may have several explanations, including poverty and inexperienced teachers, Burris observes. But, she concludes, “These problems will not be solved, however, by undermining the goal of algebra for 8th graders, but rather by focusing on how to best prepare all students to succeed at that goal. The focus should be on how we improve learning in grades K-7.”

Find Carol Burris’s review as well as a link to the Brookings Institution report on the web at:

About The Think Twice Project
The Think Twice project provides the public, policy makers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. It is a collaboration of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.


The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.

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