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Middle-School Kids Who Take Algebra – and Grades They Earn – Vary Widely Across NJ

About 40 percent of eighth-graders statewide take math class traditionally taught in high school

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The new School Performance Reports issued by the state Department of Education show a wide disparity in enrollment in eighth-grade algebra classes among the state's schools – and mixed results in how they fare academically in those classes.

While algebra has traditionally been a high-school math class, many middle schools offer it to eighth-graders or even some seventh-graders. The School Performance Reports, essentially school report cards, track the percentage of eighth-graders taking algebra, and the percentage earning at least a grade of C in the class, as one way of determining "college and career readiness."

In a memo to school officials last September, DOE officials estimated that between 30 percent and 40 percent of eighth-graders were taking algebra.

The recently released data for the 2013-14 school year show 156 schools, or about 22 percent of all those reporting, had no eighth-grade students taking algebra. At the other end of the spectrum, every student took the course last year in 56 schools -- about 8 percent of all those included middle-schoolers.

The enrollment percentages could be somewhat misleading, though, as they only report eighth-graders who took algebra and do not count schools where seventh-graders may take algebra while eighth-graders take geometry or another advanced math course.

As a rule, schools in the northern and eastern parts of the state had higher percentages of eighth-graders taking algebra than schools in South Jersey. The greatest rates of enrollment were in Union, Somerset and Morris counties, while the lowest rates were in Cumberland, Essex and Passaic counties.

Student success in algebra varied, as well. In about 35 percent of all schools in which at least some students took the class, all of them received a grade of at least C. In 8 percent of schools, fewer than half those taking algebra got a C or better. And in 34 schools with students who took algebra, none earned at least a C.

Student performance was best in Morris, Ocean and Gloucester counties, while the lowest rates of eighth-graders at least earning grades of C were in Essex and Camden counties and among the state’s charter schools.

Performance in algebra is about to get more important as the state begins testing high-school students in Algebra I and II and geometry, as well as in English, as part of the new Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing that starts this spring.

Eighth-graders taking algebra are to take the PARCC Algebra I test, instead of their grade level math test, according to a DOE memo dated September 30, 2014.

New Jersey's last foray into algebra testing did not yield strong results.

The state was part of a consortium that participated in the American Diploma Project, which created end-of-course assessments in algebra. Some New Jersey middle-school students took Algebra I or II tests on a pilot basis in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

In 2009, 27 percent of Algebra I students and 12 percent of Algebra II students took the respective tests. Just 19 percent earned a score of proficient or advanced in Algebra I, with 55 percent scoring below a basic level, according to the ADP annual report on the exams.

ADP's 2010 report did not break down results by state. However, a New Jersey report on the Algebra I test showed there had been improvement, but that it was still a lackluster performance.

More than 110,000 students took the test in 2010, four times more than a year earlier. Some 29 percent achieved a proficient or advanced level, with 47 percent scoring below a basic level. The wealthiest school districts had the best results, with 72 percent of students rated either proficient or advanced, while the poorest districts had only 10 percent of students scoring at that level.

The new PARCC algebra tests, along with other tests, are set to be administered for the first time next month.

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