Taking Algebra early matters. Here’s why.

Algebra is the 'gatekeeper course' to a STEM career. Source: Shutterstock

Enrollment rates among students who took their Algebra I courses earlier are higher than their peers who took the course later, a new report has found, revealing a link between the timing of Algebra I coursetaking and enrollment in postsecondary education.

“A higher percentage of students who last took Algebra I before grade 9 enrolled in a four-year postsecondary institution compared to students who last took Algebra I after grade 8,” it notes.

“Similarly, a higher percentage of students who last took Algebra I in grade 9 enrolled in a 4-year
postsecondary institution compared to students who last took Algebra I in grades 10–12.”

The finding, published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), is based on data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. Students were asked when they last took Algebra I and whether they had enrolled in a postsecondary institution by February 2016 in the spring of 2016, when most of them were three years beyond high school.

While the paper cautions against causal inferences based on the results presented – the factors that lead to early Algebra I coursetaking could also affect postsecondary enrollment – algebra is often touted as the foundation for future success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

This is because mathematics is the “language” of STEM and Algebra I the “gatekeeper course”. Typically, students then proceed to Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus.

“Students normally need to complete Algebra I in order to take higher level mathematics and science courses. Taking the course earlier in their academic careers allows students sufficient time to take the more advanced courses that are often prerequisites for postsecondary STEM majors,” a DoE data story states.

But not every student has access to or is able to enroll in Algebra I in eighth grade. US federal data shows less than a quarter (24 percent) of public school students do so. This matters because early access to algebra “socialises” a student to take more mathematics and increased access to advanced coursework and achievements in high school. The percentage of students entering STEM fields is also higher among those who took trignonometry, precalculus or calculus in high school, another research found.

Yet, only 59 percent of schools that serve eighth graders offer Algebra I. States across the Northeast and along the Atlantic Coast have higher percentages of students with access to the course. Magnet and charter schools are most likely to have access to Algebra I in eighth grade, with vocational and special education schools the least likely.

The recent NCES report also found variation in the timing of Algebra I coursetaking by race/ethnicity.

“A higher percentage of Asian students last took Algebra I before grade 9 (54 percent) than did White
(33 percent), Hispanic (23 percent), or Black (15 percent) students,” it wrote.

“Black and Hispanic students reported higher rates of Algebra I coursetaking in grade 9.”

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