Algebra: Gateway to College Success Starts in Middle School
Nearly every school district across the United States has a phrase in its school’s vision statement or related to preparation of students to compete on the Global Stage or to prepare for a Global Society. When considering mathematics, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2015 and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015, results indicate American students are lagging behind other industrial countries’ students. American students will have to compete with these same students in the future. When considering STEM jobs, much of the competition will take place on computer keyboards. Many companies compete across the globe and the employee is at home, in their office, or in some facility that has wireless connection. To truly compete on a global stage, we have to do a significantly better job of educating our youth with numeric literacy. “Numeracy is defined as the ability to access, use and interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of various situations in adult years. To be numerate is to confidently and effectively use mathematics to meet the everyday demands of life.” (Bendigo Kangan Institute, 2017).
Middle school and high school are absolutely necessary times for early postsecondary planning, and many educational institutions and the U.S. Department of Education suggest that students begin considering and planning for college as early as sixth grade (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 1999). Early planning gives students the opportunity to take the necessary middle and high school courses to ensure preparedness for postsecondary education, and align their educational benchmarks with their current course taking and educational planning. Schools can play a vital role in guiding early preparation for college or careers through fostering academic preparation and achievement, supporting parent involvement, providing college and career planning essentials, and aiding students through the multiple steps in college and career planning. Early postsecondary planning may not be the case for all students. Too many students are failing to engage in the early planning activities that can be extremely beneficial in getting ready for college. It could be considered too late to start preparing for college in the 11th or 12th grade. By this time, students have missed opportunities to take rigorous courses as well as all the math high schools have to offer. Rigorous mathematics provide students with leverage to meet the challenges of college.
Middle school students who take rigorous courses such as Algebra I can obtain information about college opportunities and are likely to apply to a four-year university (Atanda, 1999; National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001). This is especially true among minority and first-generation college students. Those who take higher-level math courses are more likely to attend college (Horn & Nuñez, 2000). As it relates to equity and Civil Rights, Kaupt (1998) suggests all should have the right to algebra. Having taken algebra by 8th grade allow students to take high school course sequences including calculus by senior year. Therefore, it is imperative students take algebra by 8th grade (Kaput, 1998).
Algebra is considered the gateway to taking advanced mathematics offered by high schools, which leads to knowledge and skills needed to meet Geometry, Algebra II, and Calculus rigor (Gaertner, Kim, DesJardins, & McClarity, 2013). The completion of these higher math courses aid students for success in college, technically skilled jobs, as well as more lifetime career earnings. Math Pathways and Pitfalls (2013) suggest students who complete challenging math courses double their chances of graduating from college compared to students who do not. “Failure in algebra is the #1 trigger of dropouts in high school” (Helfand, 2007).
“The mathematics courses students take in high school affect their academic achievement and their admission to competitive postsecondary schools and professional programs” (Schiller & Muller, 2003, p. 300). Adelman (2006) states, when students complete high-level mathematic courses such as Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Trigonometry, and Calculus these are the most significant predictors of achieving in postsecondary systems.
DesJardins, Gaertner, Kim, and McClarity (2013), Preparing Students for College & Careers: The Causal Role of Algebra II looked at the impacts of taking Algebra II in high school.
Research findings suggest completing Algebra II is necessary for college outcomes for all post-secondary institutions, but not necessarily for career outcomes. Students who completed Algebra II in high school were more likely to be accepted to college, sustain higher grade point averages, remain in college, and most of all graduate from college. Moreover, students who did not complete Algebra II do not achieve the same outcomes. Students who did not apply to college after high school, completing Algebra II was not essential to finding a job immediately after high school, earning occupational prestige, earnings, or career advancement (Gaertner, Kim, DesJardins, & McClarty, 2013). Fong, Huang, and Goel, (2008) state students who complete Algebra II increase their opportunity for not needing remedial courses once enrolled in college. In fact, completing Algebra II was essential for improving college preparedness as it relates to minority students (Evan, Gray, and Olchefske, 2006).
In summary, the data provides evidence regarding Algebra and the importance of algebra beyond the walls of school. The importance of Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II and other advanced math courses are extremely important and significant predictors for college admission and sustainability beyond a student’s freshman year of college.
High schools throughout the country, now offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses in mathematics and science. These courses are known as pre-college readiness subjects. Adelman (2006) urges students to complete at least two years of AP courses in math. High school students who perform well on AP examinations triple their chances of obtaining a four-year college degree as opposed to students who do not pass the AP test (National Science Foundation, 2007). Subsequently, the percentage for completing a four-year degree is even higher for African American students. Many students, especially low-income students, misjudge what essential classes they must enroll to properly prepare themselves for two and four-year colleges. It is severely important for guidance counselors to ensure they are providing all students with valid information regarding the importance of Algebra’s impact on college preparedness. Rigorous math course completion also improve students’ ACT scores (ACT, 2010; 2012).
What is true for the high school population in general is true for African American and Hispanic students whose college graduation rates are more positively impacted than any other group through by having a rigorous curriculum and teachers competent in their subject area (Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). Students who complete Algebra II, double their chances of graduating from a four-year college as opposed to those students do not (Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). Furthermore, failure or less than mediocre achievement in minimum college ready courses such as Algebra is a major problem impacting urban secondary education, which also negatively impacts African Americans, Hispanics, and other students of color.
Stein, Kaufman, Sherman, and Hillen (2011), research findings suggest there are inequities regarding those who take Algebra in 8th or 9th grade. This is common for minority students, lower income students, and students whose parents have minimum education (Filer & Chang, 2008; Gamoran & Hannigan, 2000; McCoy, 2005; Shakrani, 1996; Walston & McCarroll, 2010). According to research by Stone (1998), these demographic inequities in Algebra have been evident since the early 1990s in large urban school districts. The data disclosed a couple of reason for this imbalance, including under-preparedness and subjective placement factors. Not taking rigorous math courses in high school can have substantial ramifications for a student’s future job earnings and social success. If students do not take advanced math courses in high school, and they plan on going to college, “a student is effectively frozen out of the highly compensated, highly sought after fields of science, technology, engineering, and math known as STEM” (Brown, Hadjimarkos, & Rogers, 2013, p. 2).
Some studies revealed when students are selected to take advanced math courses, a host of minority and low-income students are excluded from taking Algebra, even if their test scores are proficient or advanced. Stone’s (1998) research shows that students of upper financial status are more likely to be enrolled in Algebra I and Geometry as opposed to their lower income peers who scored proficient or advanced with their test scores (Stein, Kaufman, Sherman, & Hillen, 2011; Walston & McCaroll, 2010). Horn and Bobbitt (2000) disclosed “fewer first-generation college students are taking eighth grade Algebra compared to students with parents who were college graduates” (Stein, Kaufman, Sherman, & Hillen, 2011, p. 461).
California considers taking Algebra a civil right for students. To ensure students are not being overlooked or misplaced due to origin or social economic status, the state of California educators may face substantial legal liability for misplacement of students in math courses. This is due to California based universities require college eligible math courses such as Advanced Placement Statistics or Calculus. “Purposeful placement decisions that disproportionately impact minority students violate state and federal laws” (Brown, Hadjimarkos, & Rogers, 2013, p. 4).
The opportunity to take these advanced math courses can only be achieved if students complete algebra by 8th grade and enters high school enrolled Geometry. Students not having the opportunity to complete advanced math courses can negatively impact college success and long-term opportunities forever (Brown, Hadjimarkos, & Rogers, 2013). The most alarming concerns California has with misplacing students in advanced math courses due to social economic status (SES) or race occurs when a student has adequately “completed Algebra I in middle school and is forced to repeat Algebra I in 9th grade. When this happens, the student is immediately made less competitive for college admission” (Brown, Hadjimarkos, & Rogers, 2013, p. 4). The research study conducted by the state of California for nine districts between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties research findings revealed 65% of students who completed Algebra 1 in 8th grade were mandated to take the same Algebra 1 course again in the ninth grade. The same study revealed more than 42% of students mandated to take Algebra I again in 9th grade earned a B- grade or higher while in 8th grade. The students were more often than not minority and low-income students (Brown, Hadjimarkos, & Rogers, 2013). In order for United States of America to remain an elite figure on the global platform, it must be a priority to ensure a larger percentage of our secondary students enroll in college and complete a degree in an adequate time period.
National Assessment of Educational Progress states the “overwhelming number of low-achieving students in Algebra are black and Hispanic and attend big urban high-poverty schools where they are more likely to fall through the cracks” (Loveless, 2008, p. 8). More often than not, low-income and minority students tend to be the least likely to engage in early and timely educational planning. Low-income communities may lack educational planning information (Freeman, 1999). Schools serving low-income districts have an urgent role and moral imperative to prepare students and help them plan for the future and narrow the opportunity gap.
STEM and Future Careers
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) require a strong foundation in math. Society moved from an agricultural society to an industrial society and people moving to the city from the countryside for better paying industry jobs realized they needed postsecondary training for the purpose of obtaining the newly created industry jobs. Today, we are living in the information age. An era which has created a host of STEM careers and require a healthy dose of numeric literacy. “We are all required to be numerate to maximize our potential and to make a positive contribution to society. In our exceedingly technical world, numeracy skills, in particular the ability to interpret data, are becoming increasingly more significant and are hugely sought after by employers. An absence of mathematical confidence and poor numeracy skills are obstructions to employment as numeracy tests are increasingly becoming a routine part of the recruitment process” (Bendigo Kangan Institute, 2017). Math is the most important course in every country, Hands down.
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