Student algebra skills often fail to add up
Algebra taken too early could hurt pupils
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Enrolling too many eighthgraders in algebra could do more harm than good, warns a national report being released today.
Hawaii educators agreed with the study that found thousands of children are unprepared for algebra or geometry classes.
Isle schools generally check whether students are ready for more challenging problems, including prealgebra in seventhgrade, said Dewey Gottlieb, a math educational specialist with the state Education Department.
He noted states such as California and Minnesota, which mandate eighthgrade algebra, could be more likely to misplace students.
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Too many unprepared students are taking algebra in eighth grade, causing them to fall far behind and possibly hurt the progress of classmates who are ready for harder math, warns a national report.
IMPROVING, BUT ...
Math scores posted by Hawaii's eighthgraders on the National Association of Education Progress exam have been improving but trailing the national average.
Year 

Hawaii 
Nation 
1990 

251 
262 
1992 

257 
267 
1996 

262 
271 
2000 

262 
272 
2003 

266 
276 
2005 

266 
278 
2007 

269 
280 
Source: National Center for Education Statistics

While eighthgraders are doing better on national math tests, those in advanced classes are faring worse, according to the study being released today by the Brookings Institution.
"We have kids who are misplaced in their math classes," said Tom Loveless, the study's author. "They don't know very much math at all and yet they're taking courses in advanced math."
Algebra is considered a "gateway" course for higher learning. Students who take it that year are on track for calculus as seniors. Enrollment in algebra doubled from 1990 to 2007, when nearly onethird of all eighthgraders were taking it.
But the study says as many as 120,000 middleschoolers are struggling in algebra classes across the country. Eighthgrade math results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, have dropped for students who noted they were taking algebra even as overall math scores have improved.
It said that the average math scores of "misplaced" eighthgraders fell well below the average for fourthgraders. The report noted worries that instructors might water down algebra lessons to help lowachieving students, which could result in lowerquality instruction for wellprepared children, the study said.
Participation in algebra "is a good thing until you overenroll students," said Robert Hillier, NAEP's coordinator for Hawaii's Education Department.
He said that in Hawaii, average math scores rise to 270 from 260, out of a possible 500, when 1 percent to 10 percent of students take algebra, and reach 275 when enrollment grows to 11 percent to 25 percent. But if too many students take those courses, say 90 percent, "then the scores recede," Hillier said.
Isle schools generally have a "diagnostic test" in seventh grade to check whether a student is fit for a prealgebra course, said Dewey Gottlieb, a math educational specialist with the state Education Department.
Since 1990, Hawaii's public school eighthgraders  despite steady gains in the math portion of the NAEP  have been trailing their mainland counterparts.
Isle students ranked 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in last year's test. They averaged 269 points, nearly 30 points behind students in Massachusetts, who led the math ranking. The national average was 281 points.
Hawaii reported having 28 percent of its students in advanced math classes, compared with the national average of 38 percent.
But a state's overall math score doesn't necessarily increase as more students take algebra, the study found.
For example, there were more eighthgraders taking higherlevel math in New Mexico, Alabama and District of Columbia than in Hawaii, yet their average scores were lower than those posted by isle students.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.