Is Eighth Grade Algebra Closing the Achievement Gap for African American Students?

In Minnesota, all students in the class of 2015 and beyond must earn an Algebra 1 credit by the end of eighth grade. This graduation requirement went into effect during the 2010-2011 school year when Minnesota joined California, which has since dropped the requirement, as the only states in the country to hold such standards in mathematics.

Now Minnesota is left with an important challenge: to not only prepare students for advanced math classes in high school, and for success in college, but also to help close the achievement gap. What impact would this new requirement have on African American students? What would happen if those students were traditionally behind their peers in math skills coming into eighth grade?

How Can We Close the Achievement Gap in Math Education?

I spent an entire year with an eighth grade algebra class in North Minneapolis to find out. The most obvious challenge of teaching math in urban settings is that students often lack necessary skills. Success includes more than just helping students catch up. It’s not a matter of teaching algebra or basic skills; it’s a matter of teaching both. So what factors can help close the achievement gap for African American students in math education?

  1. More time: Most students were not prepared coming into eighth grade algebra. But they were able to catch up with two hours of math per day instead of one. When students have longer school days and are given time to learn both algebra and basic math skills, they are often more successful. A lot of the students I saw in eighth grade algebra are now in pre-calculus as juniors and will have the skills and opportunity to take calculus as seniors.
  2. Understanding Minnesota’s new standards: This applies to both teachers and students. Teachers must know the material and understand standards-based teaching, as textbooks alone no longer represent the curriculum. Students, on the other hand, need to understand how these math skills are building a foundation for more advanced classes later in high school. Both these factors helped students catch up in the class I worked with.
  3. Making connections between content and culture: We were able to capture students’ interest in math by using culturally relevant information. For example, to teach inverse relationships we used the situation of getting your hair braided. The smaller the braid, the more it costs. Our students were able to apply the concept to the world in which they live. Needless to say, it was not an example you would find in a traditional textbook.

Tutoring Program in North Minneapolis: When You Can Teach It, You Know It

It’s crucial for teachers to connect what students know with what they need to know. But when students are behind, this takes more time, and tutoring with peers often makes sense. I’m currently involved in a tutoring program through the University of Minnesota STEM Education Center. It is held in North Minneapolis at the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) and Harvest Prep School.

This program was made possible with a College Ready grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation. With roughly 135 students involved, the learning model is simple. Undergrad students from the University of Minnesota spend time tutoring and mentoring eleventh graders in their current subject matter (algebra, trigonometry or pre-calculus). These eleventh graders, who struggled with algebra as eighth graders during the 2010-2011 school year, then tutor and mentor current eighth grade students.

By relearning the material and teaching it to others, these juniors are getting content from both grades, which are hugely connected, and gaining mastery of the subject matter. Each study group, or “community” as we call them, is named after an underrepresented mathematician or scientist. One is Dr. Sylvester James Gates, who is currently the Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. Another is Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space.

More Opportunities for African American Students

While the eighth-grade math requirement in Minnesota has been a point of discussion across the state, I’ve found it offers more opportunities to African American students. That’s not to say every student will be successful, but several eighth graders I had a few years ago are now into pre-calculus as juniors and will have the opportunity to pass the state test this spring.

Prior to the introduction of this graduation requirement, if a student attended a charter school with just one teacher or one math course offered, that course probably wasn’t going to be algebra. This, of course, meant several urban learners would not have access to more advanced math later in high school because they were unable to start algebra sooner. While the impact this initiative had on my students in North Minneapolis and at schools around the state will not be measured until later this spring, I’m excited about the progress we’ve made in identifying this issue for African American students and working to solve it.

Lesa Covington Clarkson

About the Author

Lesa Covington Clarkson, Ph.D.

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