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Designing a comprehensive math program for a school or school district is a lot like erecting a building. In addition to having all the right materials, construction workers, and so on, you also need to have a sound blueprint.

A blueprint or learning sequence for a math program that leads to student success begins very early on – as early as kindergarten. As students progress through the various stages of their math education, there are important milestones along the way. One of the biggest is taking and passing Algebra I. Success in Algebra I tends to lead to success for students in more advanced courses down the road, through high school and into college.

But how do you know that a student is ready to begin studying algebra? Everyone learns at different rates, and there’s no set age or grade level for a student to enter this phase of their math journey.

There are, however, indicators that can be examined to determine when a student should begin taking Algebra I.

In partnership with the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, REL Central produced a report titled What Grade 7 Foundational Knowledge and Skills Are Associated with Missouri Students’ Algebra I Achievement in Grade 8? It explored the associations between students’ scores within the five domains assessed by the grade-seven Missouri Assessment Program, an assessment already given to all grade-seven students, and their subsequent success in Algebra I. The five domains examined were Ratios and Proportional Relationships, the Number System, Expressions and Equations, Geometry, and Statistics and Probability. Analysis from the report suggested that all five domains were relevant to students’ Algebra I scores at the end of grade eight, with Expressions and Equations proving most strongly associated for native English speakers and the Number System identified as most strongly associated for English language learners.

On September 23, REL Central hosted a special webinar in which the report was discussed in detail. Participants at this virtual event included John Downs (superintendent at Hallsville School District in Missouri) and Jennifer Overley (retired educator and district math coordinator at Cherry Creek School District in Colorado). Both administrators found the data presented in the report valuable.

“In the past, our approach to the placement of students into middle school algebra was inconsistent,” said Downs. “We utilized a variety of criteria which included subjective and unreliable factors such as student engagement, homework completion, and unit test results which were often teacher-created, which is fine until you factor in the 11–13 percent turnover rate we see among our teachers. What we found overall was that the criteria for placing students in classes was based on the students who ‘played school’ the best. Placing attention on these domains has been more reliable.”

“In math, a gatekeeper subject, we’ve tried to implement the idea across the board that all students have the potential to reach high levels,” said Overley. “We still see inequities, however, and grading can still be subjective. This research is interesting to us, and this data will help us make decisions.”

Teacher qualifications for Algebra I were also discussed during the webinar. Dr. Joshua Stewart presented some key findings from a report, also completed in partnership with the MO DESE, titled Associations between the qualifications of middle school Algebra I teachers and student math achievement.

Successful classrooms need a good teacher just like construction sites need a quality foreman to execute the architect’s vision and ensure that every detail of the blueprint is carried out as planned. Course sequencing is a great example of a learning blueprint, as it uses research-based data to build upon previous experiences of both students and teachers in order to facilitate a pathway with the greatest chance of success.

By putting together a good blueprint for an algebra program and having good building materials and quality individuals to execute the project, you’ll be in better shape to support your students’ success! A video recording of the webinar outlining a blueprint for a successful Algebra I program can be viewed HERE. For more information on REL Central’s College and Career Readiness Research Alliance, click HERE.