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California has sharply increased the number of eighth-graders who take beginning algebra since 2003, but the results of that expansion are decidedly mixed, according to a new study by EdSource, a Mountain View-based educational policy think tank.

The number of eighth-graders taking Algebra I has jumped by 80 percent, with the increases especially high among low-income, African American and Latino youngsters.

"However, placing all eighth-graders into Algebra I, regardless of their preparation, sets up many students to fail," EdSource said in a summary of the study's findings. "In the EdSource study sample, almost one-third of students who scored at the two lowest levels on the state's 7th grade math test were placed into Algebra I in eighth grade - with almost no chance for success. Schools serving predominantly low-income students were more likely to make these types of placement decisions than schools serving predominantly middle-income students."

In the main, the study found, students who had received preparatory instruction fared the best, while those who hadn't tended to perform poorly on academic tests.

"California's gains in Algebra I course taking and success have raised expectations, particularly for low-income and minority students" said Matt Rosin, a senior research associate at EdSource and a member of the study team. "California's middle grades educators should continue to widen appropriate access to challenging mathematics coursework. But in doing so, they need to build on a strong math foundation for students in earlier grades and base their placement decisions on a careful understanding of students' preparedness."

The full study can be obtained from EdSource here.


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