Middle School Math Matters More Than You May Realize

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Feb 26, 2024

Teen boy solving algebra equations on. chalkboard, photo by Comstock Images/Getty Images

Photo by Comstock Images/Getty Images

I remember our conversation with the guidance counselor as my daughter started 9th grade. Many of her peers were taking algebra II, but she hadn't taken geometry in middle school.

“She could maybe double up,” the guidance counselor suggested, meaning take both algebra II and geometry as a freshman. I waffled. Two math courses in her first year at a new high school, on top of an already challenging course load? Too much, we decided.

I'm an education researcher who has literally studied who takes algebra classes when. And yet I was still sort of surprised how fixed my kid's math trajectory was by the end of middle school.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not upset that my daughter missed the opportunity to take geometry in 8th grade. She can still get through the advanced math courses that selective colleges expect and require—like calculus—before graduation, if she wants to. What's upsetting is that many 8th graders don't even have access to algebra I, let alone geometry. Even when those courses are offered, the criteria for who can enroll vary a lot. Together, these circumstances can lead to deep inequities in who gets into advanced math classes by high school.

Even when algebra and geometry are offered, the criteria for who can enroll vary a lot.

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Public school students start being grouped by achievement level as early as elementary school. In spring 2023, RAND's American Mathematics Educator Study surveyed national samples of public school K–12 teachers and principals about math learning opportunities. Roughly 4 in 10 elementary principals reported that during math lessons, students are grouped by achievement level. For example, teachers might break them into small groups that get more or less challenging problems to work on.

By middle school, this type of math sorting gets more common and more rigid. Principals told us it was happening at nearly 7 in 10 of their schools. And more of these principals reported assigning students to separate math classes based on perceived math skill.

Algebra I in 8th grade is the most common example. About 85 percent of middle school principals say their school offers this, but a full three-quarters of them report that “only certain students” (versus “any student”) can take it. The rest likely take a general math class or something less advanced than algebra I.

(Complicating matters, such tracking isn't limited to math classes. About 40 percent of schools that group students by math achievement level also typically slot students into pre-specified pathways for all their middle school courses. That suggests that math placement may be tied to placement in other subjects. )

The criteria used to place students can vary widely. In our study, large majorities of principals reported using teacher recommendations or diagnostic assessments. Nearly 60 percent used annual standardized state test results, even though those tests are not designed for that purpose. And in higher-income schools, parents got more of a say: Their principals were more likely to take such requests into account than those at lower-income schools.

Parents of pre-teens shouldn't take for granted that their child's assignment is the right fit.

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In short, some 8th graders who might do well in a rigorous math class won't be offered algebra I—especially if they don't test well, or are in a school where parent requests are uncommon or ignored. All of this adds up to shortchanging the most vulnerable students.

Parents of pre-teens shouldn't take for granted that their child's assignment is the right fit. They should ask teachers and principals: What math classes are available at what grade level? What data determines who gets place where? How did you decide my child's math placement? Some schools are proactive about providing this information, but most aren't. Only about 30 percent of middle school principals report holding a public meeting to discuss math placement.

It's probably even more important to ask your middle schooler lots of questions about their math classes. Do they feel challenged in a good way, or are they struggling? Could they handle more advanced math? Or do they need more support, like from a tutor or a math specialist? Schools have the difficult responsibility to provide the right level of math instruction for every child. Help them fulfill it and ensure that each child reaches their full potential.


Julia Kaufman is a senior policy researcher at RAND, where she codirects the RAND American Educator Panels. Her research focuses on how states and school systems can support high-quality instruction and student learning, as well as methods for measuring educator perceptions and instruction

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