San Diego schools, like those in many cities, have seen a large increase in the number of students who take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade rather than in 9th as was traditional when I was in the classroom. This is part of a trend that was just getting fired up when I last taught math that said that every student should take four years of math in high school, culminating in Calculus. To make that work without summer school, it meant that students would have to take Algebra 1 in middle school.

There is plenty of evidence that students need Algebra as a foundation course in their graduation program, even if they don’t go to college, since the topics studied come up in many fields from science to economics to engineering to statistics. Where the evidence is lacking is that students need to study Calculus in high school. Most people would be far better served by a good, solid probability/stat/finance course, if for no other reason to show that throwing money at the lottery is a lousy investment.

The other half of this story, however, is how many kids are actually learning what they need in 8th grade Algebra. In San Diego, 80% of the eighth graders took the state Algebra test and, I assume, took the class. However, only 13% of those students actually scored high enough to be considered proficient. Rather than push kids to take such an important subject and do poorly, I’d rather see middle schools enrich the basic pre-Algebra curriculum to give kids a broader understanding of how math works. In that way, students will have a better understanding of Algebra, and maybe why it’s important, when they do take it. I’d be happy if it just cut down the number of kids who whined "Why do we have to study this stuff?".