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As it becomes more commonplace for schools to offer, and students to take, Algebra I in middle school, questions have arisen as to whether they may be missing out on fundamental skills and knowledge that would prepare them to succeed in the class. This concern is further bolstered by data that shows that students who become frustrated in Algebra I often do not take higher level math classes derailing early learning gains or worse leaving them disenchanted with further advancement in the area of mathematics–which in turn can reduce access to high-paying job opportunities.

In Missouri, roughly 20% of students in 2016 accelerated into Algebra I in middle school, skipping classes such as 8th grade math, with varying levels of success. This has led Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MO DESE) educators to consider whether students entering 8th grade are ready to succeed at Algebra I and if a method to determine their readiness to do so can be found. With this question in mind, MO DESE leaders and REL Central researchers worked together to conduct the study What Foundational Knowledge and Skills Measured by the Missouri Assessment Program in Grade 7 are Associated with Algebra I Achievement in Grade 8?

The study examined the association between students’ performance on five math domains defined and assessed by the 2017 Grade 7 Missouri Assessment Program and their performance on the 2018 Algebra I End of Class assessment in 8th grade. By doing so, study researchers, REL Central’s Mary Klute, Barbara Dougherty, and Douglas Van Dine, identified which of five math domains–ratios and proportional relationships, the number system, expressions and equations, geometry, and statistics and probability–were most associated with Algebra I success.

The researchers found that student scores in all five math domains taught in 7th grade, as assessed on the 2017 grade assessment, were associated with Algebra I achievement in 8th grade. However, students’ scores in the expressions and equations domain were, on average, most strongly associated with student success. According to MO DESE’s Missouri Learning Standards: Mathematics, this domain identifies 7th graders’ ability to “use properties of operations to generate equivalent expressions” and “solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations.”

“That the expressions and equations domain had the strongest association is not surprising because concepts in that domain are foundational to algebra,” Klute, Dougherty, and Van Dine wrote in the report. “Previous research has shown that students have a deeper grasp of algebra when they can use a variable in multiple roles and when they understand the equal sign. Both of these abilities are foundational in students’ studies of expressions and equations in grade 7.”

For MO DESE educators, the report’s conclusions help answer which skills and knowledge are associated with Algebra I student success. But it also shows that its Math Assessment Program results, especially in the domain of expressions and equations can be used as part of a process to determine if 7th grade students are ready to progress to Algebra I when they enter 8th grade.

Summing up implications of the report, Van Dine explained, “The results of the report might be useful to educators who want to develop data-based processes to identify which students are ready for Algebra I in middle school and which students would benefit from additional support to acquire the foundational knowledge and skills prior to enrolling in Algebra I. Educators might also use the findings to inform the instruction they provide to prepare students to take Algebra I in middle school.”