This has been a hot topic in US schools for year. I really noticed this when I took a summer course through Independent School Management about 5 years ago. All of the administrators were talking about the implications of offering algebra in 8th grade. This article from Education Week discusses two studies in California and North Carolina. In the US, the percentage of students taking algebra in grade 8 rose from 16 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2007. The studies are questioning the value of offering algebra at such a young age. An excerpt from the California study:

They found that, for the nearly 2,400 students who performed in the lowest 10 percent on state math tests at the end of 7th grade, taking algebra in 8th grade had no significant effect on their state math-test performance at the end of 8th grade. And it caused their average GPAs to drop 7 percent, about the difference between a C and a C-minus.

“What we can see is there’s a potential harm to a low-performing student on the GPA,” said Mr. Taylor, the lead author of the study. “It’s pretty important. The grade point average [is what] parents pay attention to, teachers pay attention to—it’s actually more salient to the kids than math [state tests]. So there’s clearly academic harm in the short term.”

An an excerpt from the North Carolina study:

the Duke researchers found that even moderately math-proficient students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg who were put into early-algebra classes performed significantly worse on state end-of-year math tests. Moreover, initially low-performing students who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade were significantly less likely to take more-advanced math courses, such as Algebra 2 or geometry, later.

My take-away from the articles is that students can succeed in algebra in grade 8 if they have the proper preparation leading up to the class. A policy of everyone takes algebra in grade 8 is not good for those students who are not ready. It is important for school districts to integrate algebra concepts earlier than grade 8 for their students. At ISB, we don’t use the US-based “pancake stack” approach of mathematics, where a student will study in sequence, a year of algebra, then geometry, then algebra II/trigonometry, and finally if they are ready, calculus. The IB math curriculum integrates all the disciplines every year in a spiral approach, each year introducing the concepts from all math areas in increasing depth.

In grade 8 we differentiate in mathematics by offering a standard and extended program. I think this approach agrees with the studies in the article. For the students that are ready and able, the algebra is presented and for those students that are not ready, then the skills and knowledge gaps are covered in the standard.

In my discussions with the math department at ISB, I am taking away the following:

1) The USA is moving more towards a spiral approach and they call it integrated mathematics.

2) Our Grade 8 curriculum is algebra-heavy, but what I wrote is correct.