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Shining a Light on Algebra I Access and Success: Embracing Equity at All Levels

November 10, 2020

SRI International
   Laura Kassner, REL Appalachia
   Rebecca Schmidt, REL Appalachia
   Deborah Jonas, REL Appalachia

Are you an elementary school teacher who wonders how your high- achieving math students fared down the road? Or perhaps you're a middle or high school math teacher who wonders how your students who completed Algebra I in grade 7 fare in high school compared to other students who completed Algebra I in later grades? Or maybe you are a district or state level leader who struggles with the right balance in prescribing policy to maximize opportunity, while ensuring student competency for accelerated math pathways. Read on to learn more about steps you can take to analyze your own data and to consider ways to increase students' access to and success in accelerated math pathways.

The Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (REL AP) recently published a new report stemming from a key question raised by a partnership in our region. The Student Success in Math (SSM) partnership, comprising small-city school divisions in central Virginia, recognized mastery of Algebra I as critical to graduating high school students who are prepared for college and careers. Completing higher level math courses in high school, including and beyond Algebra II, increases graduates chances of enrolling, persisting in and completing college.1, 2 As well, economists have found that the math courses students take in high school are strongly related to their earnings ten years later, regardless of students' backgrounds, college majors, or occupations.3 Because of these important links between math, preparation for college and career, and future earnings, SSM partnership members wanted to investigate differences in students' course completion and diploma outcomes based on when they completed Algebra I: Did completing Algebra I in grade 7, 8, or 9 make a difference? REL AP staff obtained historical data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS) to answer the stakeholders' question, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

Gaps in access and outcomes

The study team and stakeholders examined Algebra I coursetaking pathways and outcomes based on students' performance on Virginia's grade 5 statewide math test in part because partnership members indicated that students' math achievement in grade 5 played a large role in how they placed students into middle school math courses. The test results for students at the highest achievement level (advanced proficient) were striking, particularly when viewed through the lens of equitable access and success for all students. The results showed:

  • A quarter of students who scored advanced proficient on the grade 5 math test completed Algebra I in grade 9. That is, 25 percent did not take the accelerated math pathway, despite showing strong proficiency in math in elementary school. An even larger percentage of students who were economically disadvantaged or English learners (37 percent and 42 percent respectively) did not take the accelerated math pathway.
  • Regardless of when they completed Algebra I (in grade 7, 8, or 9), smaller proportions of economically disadvantaged students who earned advanced proficient scores on the grade 5 math test passed the state Algebra I test compared to the overall population. Among students who scored advanced proficient in grade 5 and completed Algebra I in grade 7, the pass rate for economically disadvantaged students was 10 percentage points lower than for the overall population; among students completing Algebra I in grade 8, their pass rate was 8 percentage points lower.
  • Even when they followed an accelerated pathway in math and completed Algebra I in grade 7 or 8, smaller proportions of economically disadvantaged students and English learner students who scored advanced proficient on the grade 5 math test earned a college preparatory diploma4 compared to the overall population. For economically disadvantaged students, the percentage earning college preparatory diplomas was 15 to 20 percentage points lower than the overall study population.
These findings suggest inequitable access to Algebra I course placement in middle school and inequitable access to courses needed to complete a college preparatory diploma for economically disadvantaged students and English learner students.

What can you do with these results?

Specific data availability varies from state to state, but the approach used in the study can help you investigate Algebra I coursetaking patterns and student outcomes in your local community and level (state, district, school). For example, you can investigate:

  • The number and demographics of advanced proficient (high-scoring) students in grade 5 math by school. Knowing the number and percentage of students scoring advanced proficient (or the high-scoring equivalent) on the state standardized test in grade 5 math—and their demographic characteristics—will provide some insight into the foundational math skills students have attained by the end of elementary school. Following these students' math coursetaking over time, using longitudinal data, can help you examine equity in various outcomes, such as course passing and graduating with preparation needed to succeed in college and careers. By also identifying elementary school of origin and related feeder patterns, districts can identify promising practices to highlight and, conversely, bottlenecks preventing accelerated math access for competent students.
  • When grade 5 students who scored high in math take Algebra I. Examining which students and what percentage of a given grade 5 cohort take Algebra I in grade 7, 8 and 9 will help leaders identify who showed early success in math and did not follow an accelerated (Algebra I in grade 8) or even hyper-accelerated (Algebra I in grade 7) math pathway. With this information, you can begin to determine why differences exist among student groups. For example, if you have access to longitudinal data, consider steps you can take to determine whether the differences in placement into Algebra I were based on objective criteria (such as placement tests) or other more subjective factors (such as teacher recommendations or school counselor advising). Keep in mind you could also request support from the district or state in collecting difficult-to-obtain grade 5 student data through electronic records and longitudinal databases. Your Regional Educational Laboratory, university partners, and other researchers may be able to help clean and analyze the data. Even without access to longitudinal data, there are concrete action steps you can take:
    • Collect data from within your school, district, or state to describe potential variability in availability of Algebra I in middle schools with a focus on ensuring equitable access for all students.
    • Review written procedures and conduct interviews with teachers, guidance counselors, and students to determine what happens in practice. Then examine the relationships between those policies and practices and potential bias (for example, the role of subjective measures).
    • Examine data patterns for students who take Algebra I each year. Who is more likely, and less likely, to be in Algebra I in middle school?
  • Pass rates for Algebra I overall and for subgroups. Examining overall pass rates for student cohorts and the subgroups within each cohort will help leaders determine if gaps exist in student outcomes by demographic variables (such as English learner status, or economically disadvantaged status). Consider combining these data with information about access to advanced math pathways for diverse student groups, perhaps focusing on students who were high achieving in grade 5 math, to understand whether there are concerns about equitable access and success that should be addressed.
  • College ready achievement rates overall and for subgroups. Similarly, you may examine the rate at which high school graduates complete a college preparatory program of study or meet other college-ready benchmarks (e.g., college-ready scores on state achievement tests, SAT, or ACT). Consider analyzing these rates overall and by student subgroups in relation to the timing of Algebra I completion to monitor gaps in student outcomes that may be related to a broader concern about equitable access and success.

Embracing equity at all levels

As you examine coursetaking access and student success data systematically, the need to improve policy and/or practice will likely become clear. As you determine next steps in embracing equitable practices in your classroom, school, district, and state, consider how your role might shape your approach to addressing equity in access and success to ensure all students are on the path to graduating high school prepared for college and careers.

  • Classroom teachers
    Regardless of the course and level, holding high expectations of all students is a critical first step for educators in providing equitable, rigorous, and challenging math work for everyone. Beyond a culture of uniformly high expectations, utilizing effective teaching practices, such as visual representations and multiple problem-solving strategies5, 6 can ensure math is taught equitably in ways that reach every student, regardless of first language or prior knowledge. Beyond assumptions and instructional practices, the gaps evident in REL Appalachia's study point to a need to also examine policy at the school, district, and state level, such as which students are recommended for accelerated math pathways and why.
  • School and district curriculum, instruction, or policy leaders
    School- and district-level policies, whether official or unofficial, may impact students' access to opportunities. Consider the extent to which all middle schools—including those serving large percentages of economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and students of color—offer Algebra I. Beyond equitable opportunity to take the courses, consider placement criteria used to determine when students are eligible to take Algebra I, including objective, point-in-time assessments such as a grade 5 standardized math score, versus subjective measures, such as teacher, guidance counselor, and/or parent recommendations. Subjective criteria may contribute to disparities in opportunity and outcomes for some students. Beyond written policy, examine what happens in practice. Whom do counselors or teachers advise to take or avoid accelerated math courses and why? Remember that education should broaden horizons and open doors, rather than ration opportunities and close doors for students.
  • State agency and policy leaders
    We encourage state agencies and policy leaders to examine data and provide guidance to promote equitable access to and success in Algebra I, as well as in graduating high school ready for college. To examine data, state agencies could explore coursetaking patterns and outcomes in math and across other disciplines, and plan to monitor improvements over time. With the results of the analysis, state agencies could provide guidance to local policy leaders related to graduation requirements, course pathways, and other best practices that support all students. We particularly encourage developing strong guidance on the importance of high expectations for coursetaking and readjusting expectations to believe that most students can strive to attain a college preparatory diploma. Apart from creating more well-rounded students, who have rich experiences in advanced coursework such as foreign language and mathematics, there is a strategic reason to reframe expectations. If students plan to graduate from high school with a college preparatory program of study (such as the Advanced Studies diploma requirements in Virginia) and narrowly miss fulfilling its rigorous requirements, in many states they will still graduate from high school. However, if students plan to graduate with a regular diploma and fail to meet its minimal requirements, their graduation and future plans are significantly jeopardized. Thus, planning for all students to fulfill the requirements for a college preparatory diploma creates a type of “graduation insurance plan” that benefits the individual student, the school and district's accreditation, and the local and national economy.

Everyone can do something

The enormity of the challenges underpinning inequities in math outcomes—from course-placement criteria, to teaching practices, to graduation requirements—may feel too overwhelming for any one of us to change. In the Jewish wisdom literature, it is said you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.7 So, we issue a challenge: find a meaningful way to challenge the status quo in your role and consider how you might push for greater equity in access and success for your students.

Let us know how you're taking on this challenge! Contact us via email at or share with us on Twitter, @REL_Appalachia.

Resources for ongoing learning

Resources from the Student Success in Mathematics Partnership at REL AP

Other products from the REL program

WWC Practice Guides



1 D. Jonas, M. Garland, & R. Yamaguchi (2014), Following Virginia's career and technical education completers out of high school and into college: A study of high school graduates' college enrollment, persistence, and completion, Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education.

2 C. Adelman (2006), The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

3 H. Rose, & J. R. Betts (2004), The effect of high school courses on earnings, Review of Economics and Statistics, 86(2), 497–513.

4 In Virginia, the Advanced Studies diploma requires students to complete courses needed to enroll and be successful in college and is considered a college preparatory diploma.

5 J. Boaler (2015), Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students' potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching, Jossey-Bass.

6 J. Woodward, S. Beckmann, M. Driscoll, M. Franke, P. Herzig, A. Jitendra, et al. (2012), Improving mathematical problem solving in grades 4 through 8: A practice guide (NCEE No. 2012–4055), Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

7 J. Jacobs (n.d.), Pirkei avot: Ethics of our fathers, My Jewish Learning, pirkei-avot-ethics-of-our-fathers/