California study finds harm for some in repeating algebra, questions whether it benefits anyone

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AP Photo

One of the most often repeated courses in U.S. high schools is algebra. Teachers and school leaders understandably worry whether a student who can’t solve basic equations should move on in math, to geometry or advanced algebra. So the student takes algebra again. Sometimes, even students with B’s in algebra are asked to repeat it because their teachers are concerned that they haven’t mastered the material.

Unfortunately, a growing body of research is showing that when you march a teenager through the same algebra class again, it doesn’t help much. And this is part of an overall picture of students repeating classes or an entire year of school without good results. Without addressing a child’s underlying learning issues or missing foundations, repetition alone is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.

A new California study, conducted for the U.S. Department of Education, reinforces this. It found that students who had gotten at least a C in the course the first time around, and had passed the state algebra assessment, were harmed by taking the course a second time. Both their grades and test scores declined. Lower performing students improved somewhat —  for example, students who had gotten an F the first year typically got a D the second year — but very few of them mastered the material. More than 80 percent of the repeaters still scored below the “proficient” threshold on the state algebra test.

This article also appeared here.

This article also appeared here.

“This is what is going on in schools across the country: It’s not an option to do anything else than retake the class with the same book and same curriculum,” said Anthony B. Fong, the lead researcher at WestEd who conducted this November 2014 study, “Who Repeats Algebra I, and How does initial performance  related to improvement when the course is repeated?

Related: Data on taking algebra in eighth grade, and the watering down of U.S. math instruction

Fong and his WestEd colleagues studied a northern California school district in the San Jose area with an alarmingly high rate of algebra repeaters — 44 percent of the students are taking algebra twice. The East Side Union High School District serves almost 25,000 students. The researchers studied a group of 3,400 students who started seventh grade in 2006 and followed them through graduation from high school. Most of the students repeated algebra in 10th grade after doing poorly in algebra in ninth grade. But many of the students originally took algebra in eighth grade and repeated it in ninth.

Among the higher performing students (C or better) who repeated, half saw their scores on the algebra state assessment fall by an entire performance level from “proficient” to “basic”.  Fong’s data analysis doesn’t explain why the higher performing students do worse the second time around, but he suspects that these students were demoralized by being held back in math and lost their motivation.

You might question why teachers are holding kids back in algebra if their grades are decent. It’s a bit of a mystery. In informal conversations, Fong learned that teachers were concerned that some students with passing grades weren’t ready to move on. For example, some teachers give high grades to students who try hard and hand their homework in even if their calculations are consistently wrong. Also, the California State Test scores were often not available until the end of summer or after school started and couldn’t be used by teachers to help them make placement decisions.

The purpose of the study is to provide guidance to schools on whether students should repeat algebra. “If you have a kid who’s on the borderline of repeating algebra or moving on, if you’re in doubt, it seems like it’s better to move on,” said Fong.

As for the majority of struggling math students, Fong said this study doesn’t definitively conclude whether students should or shouldn’t take algebra again. They tend to improve slightly, but not as much as might be hoped.

This study confirms an earlier 2012 California study that struggling students aren’t mastering algebra by repeating it. That study looked at only ninth graders across 24 school districts in California, but also found that students who took algebra a second time were unlikely to score “proficient” on the state exam following the second attempt.

The problem is, what do you do with the student who struggles with algebra? Simply promoting a student who has failed algebra I to algebra II seems silly, too.

One promising algebra intervention, studied in Chicago, was a double dose of algebra each day. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many classes like this available for struggling students across the country.

Perhaps there are clues from the research on retention and social promotion — educators’ labels for holding a student back a year or promoting a failing student to the next grade. Many researchers have found harm in holding a child back. But in Chicago and New York City, experiments in repeating school years have been successful when accompanied by extra tutoring and support programs.

Related: New research suggests repeating elementary school grades — even kindergarten — is harmful

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON December 15, 2014

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I failed algebra the first year. Second year, although embarrassed, I grasped the concepts and got an A minus. I would hate to think what would have happened had I been passed on for self esteem reasons. Would have continued to fail math.

Brad Christensen

We just completed an Algebra I/Mathematics I book of lessons written by teachers after visiting local businesses and industries. They looked for how algebra concepts were used and wrote lesson accordingly. Students learn functions through vending machine operation, linear and exponential relationships through car insurance rates, and quadratic equations through the spread of “zombies,” etc. Hard core algebra teachers may scoff, but it may have a place considering our struggle with algebra instruction.

Carlos Rozas

Are you going to publish the lessons?


If everyone is passed on then where us the incentive to do what it takes to successfully learn the material? While I agree that simply rrpeating the course in the same method is not beneficial I disagree with there not being a consequence for not meeting the criteria for mastery. A version of the course compiled of alternative instructional practices should be the follow up.

W. Samson

Generally, I have found that if enough time passes–a year or more, and if the student matures and is given the material in a different way, they may grasp it better the second time around. For example, I struggled with algebra myself, but a few years later when I was required to teach it to GED students, I found that I totally understood it and could offer the material in a few different ways to the students. I don’t know which factor turned the light bulb on–whether it was that my thinking had matured beyond concrete and I could get the concept better OR that I had to teach it to someone else, but seems like when something is different the second time there is a good chance of success. Method or attitude, as long as something is different students my benefit from a second attempt at something.


I believe the curriculum and teachers being told to teach to the test is the problem. Prior to Common Core (when this study must have been administered), California standards included too many standards. As in my district, I believe in most districts, teachers were required to follow a district curriculum map in which they have very little time for concept, with so many concepts to cover during the year. Some students can learn algebra very quickly, but because of the abstractness of algebra, many students need multiple learning opportunities of different kinds before they can master it.

Common Core can improve the curriculum if it is interpreted so algebra is taught more thoroughly with focus on students gaining critical thinking skills. However, if it is interpreted as standards to cover in preparation of test which all teachers must covers at the same pace, the same problem will continue. If instead we teach math, including algebra, geometry and statistics in an integrated manner through real world projects, students will be more motivated in the first place, as well as more motivated if they retake the course when given a leader position in continuing real world projects or different projects are involved.


I think this is the key sentence: “Without addressing a child’s underlying learning issues or missing foundations, repetition alone is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.”
The kids who repeat the course usually have gaps in their knowledge that prevent them from truly understanding the material. These kids try to memorize their way through math. It doesn’t work.
Until the gaps in knowledge are addressed, LEARNING will never happen.
Enough with pushing kids through the curriculum. It’s time they are expected to learn before being moved on.


What’s the conclusion ?

American students in general do not have a solid background in BASIC ALGEBRA (known in the US “College Algebra”).

High school teachers keep curving…..


Students with low level scores in Pre-algebra (C or less) should be placed in Algebra 1 classes given in two years, Algebra 1 (A) and Algebra 1 (B), this would prevent many of our students taking the class twice because they did not understand the material. Not everyone can go through the Algebra 1 curriculum, which is vast and fast, at the same pace and with the same understanding. This would still give them enough time in high school to complete Geometry and Algebra 2.

E May

The author misstates the conclusion of the research. The quotes above reference the journalist’s interpretation, not the authors of the research article. The article isn’t even properly cited so one can read it for them self. Here is the link read it for yourself.
“The findings demonstrate a consistent pattern: students who complete college-preparatory courses in 9th grade begin a clear trajectory that continues throughout high school. Compared with students who do not take key college preparatory courses in the 9th grade, students who do take these courses have a higher probability of meeting the complete set of course requirements set by the UC and CSU systems. Students who fall off the college-preparatory track early in high school tend to move ever further from a complete college-preparatory program as they progress through high school.
The findings in this report translate into a clear message for policymakers, students, and parents: the high school program for college preparation begins in 9th grade, and making up missed courses and academic content is likely to be difficult for students who put off college-preparatory work until later in their high school career. These findings suggest that early intervention is critical.”

Debra Raymond

I am in North Carolina. While education here seems to constantly be under attack from our state government, my children have done exceptionally well in math and science. I believe that one thing that helped them was that I loved math as a student and always kept positive about their ability to master it. I have heard so many parents say that they could not “do” algebra, that math was hard. My kids were taught different strategies that I did not recognize starting fairly early but I tried to help as much as possible until they simply advanced further than I could remember. Another advantage was that algebraic concepts were started in elementary school not held off until middle school. My son is at university majoring in aerospace engineering and my daughter majoring in biochemistry.

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