Only 28% of Illinois 8th-graders passed algebra, but is that bad?
One of the new statistics on the Illinois School Report Card sounds stark -- only about one in four Illinois students have passed algebra by eighth grade -- but the reality, educators say, is more complicated.
While schools and parents try to understand the data, many say the algebra metric is important, but not the sole way to judge success. Although only 28.4 percent of Illinois students have passed algebra by the end of eighth grade, that doesn't mean the other three-fourths of students failed. Most are just not taking the class.
"Don't freak out about it," said Ben Boer, deputy director of Advance Illinois, an organization focused on improving the state's public education system. "This is the first year we have that data point and it is one we need to continuously watch and understand. It's something to build on, not something to get upset about."
The number is not far off from early state standardized test data, which show that 31 percent of eighth-graders in Illinois met or exceeded expectations on the Common Core-based math test, he said.
Still, research shows that taking algebra in eighth grade is strongly correlated with high school graduation and college success, Boer said.
Suburban schools are all over the map. Some show fewer than 10 percent of students taking and passing algebra, while others require algebra for all and their numbers are near 100 percent.
At Elgin Area School District U-46, 33.5 percent of students passed eighth-grade algebra last year.
"That puts us ahead of most districts, but we certainly want to see that number increase," said spokeswoman Mary Fergus. "Algebra is available to all students. It's just a matter of if they are ready."
Fergus said a newly implemented math curriculum at U-46's elementary schools is aimed at preparing more students to take algebra in coming years.
Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 decided to take the leap and began placing all junior high students in algebra during the 2007-2008 school year, said Erin Kroll, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
"We noticed that we were probably not challenging them nearly enough before," Kroll said. "We've seen that our students can do it and they can do it well."
That sentiment is echoed in Jennifer Heldt's algebra class at Helen Keller Junior High in Hoffman Estates, where a sign hangs on the wall that reads, "You never know what you can do until you try."
Her seventh- and eighth-grade students work in groups to solve problems and graph their answers.
"It's nice to start pushing myself now," said Alison Summins, an eighth-grader in Heldt's class. "It sets me up for when I get to high school (and) the math is even more challenging, I can still be successful."
Heldt rarely stands in front of the class teaching concepts but instead walks from group to group to help students work out solutions, explain their answers and stay on track.
The structure, which the district calls "guided math," allows teachers to differentiate instruction to students at different levels in the same class.
There are concerns about requiring algebra for every eighth-grader, though.
"What some schools say is algebra for all is really a very watered-down algebra and that wasn't going to meet our kids' needs,"said Holly Chapman, math teacher and department chairwoman at Highland Middle School in Libertyville.
"We want to make sure that the kids are all being challenged at the appropriate level and getting a good foundation to use for the rest of their math education," she said.
At Highland, 55 percent of eighth-graders take and pass algebra. The rest take pre-algebra.
It is a similar situation in Naperville Unit District 203, where most students, except those on the accelerated track, don't take algebra until high school, officials said. According to state data, 23.1 percent of students pass eighth-grade algebra.
Tim Wierenga, assistant superintendent for assessment and analytics at District 203, said that right now the algebra metric on the state report cards doesn't have a lot of meaning because of the inconsistencies of how algebra is taught, or not, statewide.
But that's not always bad.
"This is one of the beauties of local control of curriculum," Wierenga said. "People think everything has been standardized, but we all have different students and they have different needs."
The state's algebra numbers come from student transcripts, meaning there could be confusion about the data.
For example, state data list Des Plaines Elementary District 62 as having zero students passing eighth-grade algebra, which officials say is incorrect.
Jan Rashid, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said they are dealing with a coding issue with the state. Because their classes are not called "Algebra," they aren't counted in the state report card.
Accelerated students take half of Algebra I during seventh-grade math and the other half in eighth grade. Those students can test into a more advanced math class when they start high school, she said. That has been the practice for at least seven years, although the new numbers don't reflect it.
For parents trying to understand the algebra metric on the school report cards, it can be looked at as an indicator of how rigorous the coursework is at a certain school, said Boer, of Advance Illinois.
"Just having the number be higher is not that valuable," he said. "Ensuring that students who are prepared for algebra can take algebra is the right way to think about this."
While some adults say they don't use algebra in daily life, math teachers say it's crucial.
"The specific algebraic skills we're teaching they might not use as an adult," Highland Middle School's Chapman said, "but in eighth grade most people have no idea what they want to do, so this is giving them a foundation to make those choices later in life."
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