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Aurora Institute

Broadening Options with Online Algebra

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Issues in Practice

Education experts have for decades encouraged more middle schools to offer high-achieving eighth graders the option to take Algebra 1, a course that has been traditionally offered in the ninth grade. The rationale for offering algebra to younger students is strong – studies show that students who take algebra earlier do better in math throughout high school and college.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Education, Access to Algebra I: The Effects of Online Mathematics for Grade 8 Students, finds promising results for middle schools that do not typically provide the course: offering students the option to take Algebra 1 online is an effective way to broaden opportunities for students, and to lay the foundation for future success in mathematics.

Currently, only about 30 percent of eighth graders take Algebra I. The study describes: “Furthermore, analysis of school-level administrator data from the ECLS-K indicated that while nationally, 16% of schools do not offer Algebra I to grade 8 students, the rates are highest in rural schools. About 24% of rural schools do not offer Algebra I in grade 8, compared with 21% of urban schools and 9% of suburban schools.”

A large proportion of those students without access are from rural or inner-city schools, where the class is not offered because of budgets or limited staffing. The study looked at 68 mainly rural schools in Maine and Vermont that did not typically offer Algebra 1 in their brick-and-mortar program, and found that offering the online algebra 1 class to algebra-ready students “is an effective way to broaden access” and “significantly affected students’ algebra achievement at the end of grade 8.” Further, it also found that students who took the online class “increased their likelihood of participating in an advanced coursetaking sequence in high school.”

Studies like this one demonstrate the growing importance of online programs to traditional school settings. Recent federal government statistics show that 55 percent of public school districts are offering some online coursework; the majority of these public schools cite inaccessibility to the course in a face-toface setting as a primary driver for turning to online learning course options.

As too many of our college-bound seniors continue to place into remedial math at the university level, this study offers compelling reasons for schools to turn to online solutions to bridge achievement gaps in math and other core subjects. Online learning can be a solution for students that need it most to expand access to courses and level the playing field. Policymakers would be smart to take notice.