Skip Navigation
archived information

June 2019


What does the research say about the readiness and placement of eighth grade students in algebra?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Dougherty, S. M., Goodman, J. S., Hill, D. V., Litke, E. G., & Page, L. C. (2015). Middle school math acceleration and equitable access to eighth-grade algebra: Evidence from the Wake County Public School system. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 37(1), 80S–101S. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Taking algebra by eighth grade is considered an important milestone on the pathway to college readiness. We highlight a collaboration to investigate one district’s effort to increase middle school algebra course-taking. In 2010, the Wake County Public Schools began assigning middle school students to accelerated math and eighth-grade algebra based on a defined prior achievement metric. This policy reduced the relationship between course assignment and student characteristics such as income and race/ethnicity, while increasing its relationship to academic skill. The policy increased the share of students on track for algebra by eighth grade. Students placed in accelerated math were exposed to higher-skilled peers but larger classes. Future work will assess impacts on subsequent achievement and course-taking outcomes."

Fong, A. B., Jaquet, K., & Finkelstein, N. (2014). Who repeats Algebra I, and how does initial performance relate to improvement when the course is repeated? (REL 2015-059). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory West.

From the Abstract:
"This REL West study explores the prevalence of students repeating Algebra I, who is most likely to repeat the course, and the level of improvement for students who repeat. Using six years of data from a cohort of 3,400 first-time seventh grade students in a California school district, authors found that 44 percent of students repeated Algebra I. Overall, student performance improved on average by approximately one-half of a letter grade and a little less than one-third of a performance level on the CST when students repeated the course. But when the data was disaggregated based on initial performance in the class, higher-achieving students experienced variation in improvement levels. Repeating students who initially received average course grades of at least a "C" in Algebra I earned higher CST scores but lower course grades on average when they repeated the course. Students who initially scored Proficient on the Algebra I CST experienced increases in course grades but declines in CST scores on average when they repeated the course. Overall, these findings show that lower-performing students are likely to experience improvements in grades and CST scores when they repeat Algebra I, but that higher-performing students are likely to experience improvements on some measures of performance and declines on others when they repeat the course."

Howard, K. E., Romero, M., Scott, A., & Saddler, D. (2015). Success after failure: Academic effects and psychological implications of early universal algebra policies. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 8(1), 31–61. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In this article, the authors use the High School Longitudinal Study 2009 (HSLS:09) national database to analyze the relationships between algebra failure, subsequent performance, motivation, and college readiness. Students who failed eighth-grade Algebra I did not differ significantly in mathematics proficiency from those who passed lower-level courses, but initially demonstrated significantly lower mathematics interest, mathematics utility, and mathematics identity. Both groups were less likely than the general population to meet college requirements in the eleventh grade, although students who passed a lower-level mathematics course fared better than those who failed Algebra I. Implications for policies addressing mathematics course enrollments are discussed."

Remillard, J. T., Baker, J. Y., Steele, M. D., Hoe, N. D., & Traynor, A. (2017). Universal Algebra I policy, access, and inequality: Findings from a national survey. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 25(101), 1–25. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Many in the U.S. view algebra as a gatekeeper to advanced study of mathematics, and increasing enrollment in algebra courses as a strategy to address unequal access to educational opportunity. As a result, universal enrollment policies, which require all students to complete Algebra I by grade 8 or 9, have garnered attention in school districts or states. Based on a view that school districts are the primary implementers of state and national policy in the U.S., this study surveyed a nationally representative sample of districts to investigate the prevalence of such policies and their relationship to algebra enrollment. Districts reported substantial increases in Algebra I enrollments in eighth grade, although ninth grade remains the most common year students enroll. Only 26% of districts reported having universal enrollment policies; in these districts, linear regression indicated that an association with higher eighth grade Algebra I enrollment was moderated by poverty level (measured by FRL). As a result, universal policies, while decreasing within-district disparities, may increase disparities between districts. These disparities may be explained by maximally maintained inequality (Raftery & Hout, 1993) and effectively maintained inequality theories (Lucas, 2001), which posit that more affluent groups take deliberate action to perpetuate inequalities."

Snipes, J., & Finkelstein, N. (2015). Opening a gateway to college access: Algebra at the right time [Research brief]. San Francisco, CA: WestEd, Regional Educational Laboratory West.

From the Abstract:
"Four years of math in high school, with a strong foundation in algebra that builds from middle school, is key to higher education access. Therefore, ensuring that middle and high school students succeed in math—and in algebra in particular—is an important issue for policy and practice. This research brief examines three recent Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) studies that shed important light on policies and practices that affect student success in algebra and preparation for higher-level math courses. Key findings included: (1) Middle school students who repeat algebra after initially failing the course have relatively low chances for becoming proficient in algebra; (2) The proportions of students who fail algebra and have to repeat the course are even higher among vulnerable populations, including low-income students, Hispanic students, and English language learners; and (3) Students must score well above the thresholds for proficiency in prior math courses in order to have even a 50-50 chance of success when placed into algebra."

Spielhagen, F. R. (2006). Closing the achievement gap in math: The long-term effects of eighth-grade algebra. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18(1), 34–59.

From the Abstract:
"Recent changes in national and state mathematics standards have increased the level of algebraic thinking taught in younger grades. These changes have prompted more inclusive curriculum designs that open the opportunity to enroll in advanced mathematics courses at younger ages. Of particular interest to this study is the access to eighth-grade algebra, once traditionally reserved for select populations. This study examined long-term academic outcomes for students who did or did not enroll in eighth-grade algebra in one district that implemented an initiative to increase access. The outcomes of students with similar ability, as measured by preassessment in seventh grade, were compared. The groups performed similarly on end-of-course exams in high school math and the mathematics section of the SAT I. However, students who completed algebra in the eighth grade stayed in the mathematics pipeline longer and attended college at greater rates than those who did not. Because of the sequential nature of mathematics course work, students taking algebra at an earlier age have the opportunity to enroll in more advanced courses in the future. Results suggest the need for further exploration of how to provide access and promote enrollment in eighth-grade algebra for students who demonstrate readiness."

Stein, M. K., Kaufman, J. H., Sherman, M., & Hillen, A. F. (2011). Algebra: A challenge at the crossroads of policy and practice. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 453–492. Retrieved, with free sign up and login, from

From the Abstract:
"The authors review what is known about early and universal algebra, including who is getting access to algebra and student outcomes associated with algebra course taking in general and specifically with universal algebra policies. The findings indicate that increasing numbers of students, some of whom are underprepared, are taking algebra earlier. At the same time, other students with requisite skills are not given access to algebra. Although studies using nationally representative data indicate strong positive outcomes for students who take algebra early, studies conducted only in contexts where all students are mandated to take algebra in eighth or ninth grade provide mixed evidence of positive outcomes, with increased achievement when policies include strong supports for struggling students. The authors conclude with a call for studies that examine the relationship among algebra policies, instruction, and student outcomes to understand the mechanisms by which policies can lead to success for all students."

Other Resources

American Institutes of Research, Promoting Student Success in Algebra 1–Research Briefs

From the Website:
"Algebra I is a critical gateway course for high school graduation and enrollment in college. These briefs summarize research on five strategies being implemented by U.S. Department of Education’s High School Graduation Initiative (HSGI) grantees to help struggling students succeed in Algebra I."

Crawley, P. (2018). The effect of mandating algebra for all students in grade 8 versus grade 9 in a small suburban K–12 school district in New Jersey (Doctoral Dissertation, Seton Hall University). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The traditional sequencing of the ninth- to twelfth-grade math curriculum in the United States has students taking Algebra 1 in the ninth grade, Geometry in the tenth grade, Algebra 2 in the eleventh grade and an optional advanced math course (e.g. pre-calculus, statistics) in the twelfth grade. In this traditional setup, talented math students are given the opportunity to take Algebra 1 in the eighth grade, which allows them to take two or more years of advanced math before graduating from high school. In an effort to create more equitable access to advanced math courses, many districts are considering or have implemented policies that encourage or require more students to take Algebra 1 in the eighth grade. This study examines one such policy in the Fort Lee Public School district, which implemented mandatory enrollment in Algebra 1 for all regular-education, eighth-grade students in the 2015–2016 school year. The study examines two cohorts of students: the 2015–2016 eighth graders who were the first to experience compulsory enrollment in Algebra 1 in the eighth grade and the 2014–2015 eighth graders who were the last group of students to enroll in the traditional math sequence, and who therefore did not take Algebra 1 until the ninth grade. Two primary research questions guided the study in examining how the policy affected students’ performance in Algebra 1 and how the policy affected their performance in Geometry. Several sub-questions addressed specific demographic groups, including black and Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, and males and females. Course performance was measured using students’ scale scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) course assessment for Algebra 1 and Geometry. A hierarchical regression analysis was run on the cohorts and subgroups in order to identify the effect of the policy when controlling for other exogenous variables including attendance, prior performance, race, socioeconomic status and gender. The results of the study revealed that exposure to the policy had a minimal effect on the cohorts as a whole and no effect on the majority of subgroups included, indicating that students had been successfully accelerated through the curriculum without undermining their mastery of foundational coursework. This research can inform policymakers’ decisions with regard to a policy requiring that all eighth-grade students take Algebra."

Tennessee Department of Education. (2015). Course Placement Series: Spotlight on eighth grade Algebra I [Policy brief]. Nashville, TN: Author.

From the Abstract:
"The Tennessee Department of Education explored course enrollment patterns in an effort to better understand in which courses students are enrolling and whether course enrollment policies and procedures are promoting students' interests. This report focuses on eighth grade Algebra I enrollment, which can propel students to take more rigorous math courses in high school, higher ACT scores, and college outcomes such as majoring in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) and degree completion. Key Findings include: (1) Most students who take advanced math courses, such as Calculus or other AP or IB math courses, took Algebra I in eighth grade; (2) Eighth grade Algebra I enrollment in Tennessee has decreased over the past four years, going from 31 percent in 2009-10 to 15 percent in 2013-14. During this same period, national enrollment in eighth grade Algebra I has remained steady at around 30 percent; (3) Almost all of the top third of students on seventh grade math TCAP scores pass the Algebra I End of Course exam regardless of when they take Algebra I. Yet, less than half of students who are "Algebra I Ready" at the end of seventh grade are enrolled in Algebra I in eighth grade; and (4) Prepared students who are placed in Algebra I in eighth grade outperformed their peers on the math sections of Explore, PLAN, and ACT with the gap increasing over time."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Algebra, Eighth grade, Ninth grade

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.