For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, the percentage of eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 rose steadily as schools and districts encouraged more students to take advanced math courses. Then, after warnings that some students had been promoted too soon to be successful, the trend began to reverse. Nationally, we’re now back to the same levels as we were two decades ago. The result is that students who are ready for algebra in eighth grade aren’t taking it, with detrimental effects on their academic trajectories.

While the research is mixed on universal “algebra for all” policies, it is clear that for students who can be successful, taking Algebra 1 by eighth grade has real advantages. Those include higher achievement scores in later years, a higher probability of additional advanced-course taking, and higher college readiness scores.

The essential question for policymakers, then, is how to tell when students are ready for algebra. How can the system nudge them into more advanced coursework—and avoid placing them into classes for which they are not yet ready? While the issue is complex, we have examples of the types of tools that may be helpful in screening students for readiness and policies that can ensure they get opportunities to enroll in rigorous courses for which they are prepared.

**Enrollment trends and the policy debate**

In 2012, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend assessment asked students about their mathematics course enrollment. The result was an all-time high of 34% of 13-year-olds nationwide taking Algebra 1. Unfortunately, when this same question was asked again in 2023, that number had dropped to 24%.

Schools should use multiple data points—including grades, other assessment results, and student interest—to get the most complete picture of likely student success in advanced math courses.

When we look at state-specific data, the numbers can be even more alarming. In Texas, for example, the percentage of students taking Algebra 1 and scoring proficient on the state assessment at the end of the year dropped from 62% in 2019 to 46% in 2022.

Alongside this sharp decrease in enrollment, the policy debate over when students should enroll in Algebra 1 has reached new intensity. Nowhere has the conflict been more heated than in California, where policymakers and advocates disagree about whether it should be standard in eighth grade or ninth. The disputes revolve around the tension of all students having access to advanced math courses, with a particular focus on enrolling students in classes for which they are ready.

**Measuring readiness for Algebra 1**

At the heart of this national conversation is the essential question of how policymakers, district and school leaders, and even individual classroom teachers can tell when students are “ready” for algebra. Assessments of student progress, including MAP® Growth™, can be helpful indicators of readiness, in addition to other measures. Similar analyses could be done using other assessment tools.

In response to numerous requests from our partners, NWEA has released new guidance on how to use MAP Growth for placement decisions. Our guidance is based on multiple studies on what prior spring math scores put a student on track to either receive a proficient score on an end-of-course (EoC) test of Algebra 1 content or earn a “proficient” grade at the end of an Algebra 1 course, defined as a C or better. Our analysis found that students who received a MAP Growth RIT score in the range of 235 to 238 in the spring of seventh grade had a greater than 50% chance of passing an EoC assessment, or of earning a C or better in an Algebra 1 course. This accounts for roughly one-third of eligible students.

Placement decisions are more sound when they are based on multiple measures. Assessment data is useful in that clear linkages can be drawn between results and other outcomes of success, like future test scores and passing grades in key courses. However, whenever possible, schools should use multiple data points—including grades, other assessment results, and student interest—to get the most complete picture of likely student success in advanced math courses.

**The risks of poor placement policies**

Although implied, it is helpful to state the explicit risks brought about by poor placement policies. On the one hand, setting a bar that is too high excludes students who could be successful in a more rigorous course and excludes them from all the benefits that come from completing Algebra 1 in eighth grade. On the other hand, setting a bar that is too low sets students up to fail, frustrating them along with their teachers and families, and perhaps even discouraging the pursuit of rigorous academic opportunities in the future. Thus, the balance is incredibly important and worth getting right.

As an additional consideration, policies that require students (and/or their parents or guardians) to express affirmative interest in advanced math courses or that rely on teacher recommendations have been shown to result in the systematic under-enrollment of historically underserved students. So, imperfect as they are, policies that automatically screen students for likely success and enroll them in rigorous courses are more powerful in ensuring equitable access to these opportunities.

**State placement policies**

Given the data on declining enrollment in eighth-grade algebra, particularly for historically underserved students, policymakers have been taking action. Numerous states have enacted policies in recent years to automatically place “ready” students in Algebra 1.

In 2017, for example, North Carolina passed a law requiring that all students who score at the highest level on a state test be placed in an advanced math course the following year (unless they opt out). Known as automatic enrollment, such policies remove the need for teacher, student, or parent initiative when placing kids in advanced math courses. Since the law was implemented, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of students who are placed in advanced math courses in North Carolina, and in 2023, more than 95% of advanced-scoring eighth-graders were placed in such a course.

In 2023, Texas did something similar by requiring all school districts to enroll each sixth-grade student who scores in the top 40% of their fifth-grade state math assessment in advanced math courses. This was done with the explicit goal of enabling those students to enroll in Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Note that the choice of focusing on the top 40% matches our research findings, and perhaps other analyses, which show that approximately 40% of students are “ready” for Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

Federal legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to incentivize such policies. Districts that receive funds under the proposed Advanced Coursework Equity Act would be required to screen students and automatically enroll them in advanced math courses with a specific focus on eighth-grade Algebra 1.

**In closing**

While we don’t yet have definitive research about whether Algebra 1 policies result in higher student success rates, they’re clearly having the desired effect of increasing the number of students enrolled in advanced math courses.

There can—and will be—debates over exactly how to determine readiness. In the interim, all schools should proactively screen students and automatically enroll them in eighth-grade algebra if they believe students can be successful.