A Case for Algebra I

April 2, 2021

Algebra I is more than just systems of equations, functions, and exponents. Saga has identified Algebra I to be the indicator for future success. In context, failure in only one full-year course in 9th grade decreases graduation odds by 30%. But if that failed course is Algebra I, only 13% of those students are likely to graduate in 4 years.

For those who continue on to college, Algebra remains a barrier to educational success – fewer than 50% of college students pass Algebra with a grade C or higher. These developmental math courses are a community college graduation requirement for 60% of students, and more than 70% of those students do not complete this requirement.

The data also shows that inadequate math proficiency is significantly greater for Black, Latinx, and low-income students. In large part, a positive mathematics identity is essential towards helping students sustain an interest in mathematics and develop persistence with mathematics, and there is a pervasive narrative that Black and brown students are deficient, underachievers when it comes to math. This deficit-based way of thinking perpetuates a narrative that failure is normative. This doesn’t need to be the case.

While we understand there are numerous factors that affect student learning, we focus on the fundamental challenge of a mismatch between where students are academically and what is being taught in the classroom. At Saga, tutors address this challenge through relationship-driven, targeted instructional support. And we know it works – while it might be considered too late to intervene at 9th grade in some areas of study (i.e. literacy), there are significant opportunities for growth in Algebra I with targeted, personalized support.

With that in mind, success in Algebra I sets a student up to break down the cycle of racial and economic inequity by simultaneously supporting the development of strong mathematical competence and engagement, resulting in improved academic performance across all subject areas.

By the numbers:

By working with Saga’s tutors, Saga students acquire up to 2.5 years of additional math learning per year in the program. This is a meaningful step in closing the math opportunity gap by 50%, arming them with the knowledge and confidence to achieve higher standardized test scores, earn higher grades in their math classes, and have stronger engagement in school and in many cases, actually create a pathway for them to enjoy math. Evidence shows that students who pass 9th grade algebra are 4x more likely to receive a high school diploma. While Saga only focuses on math, the impact reaches across subjects, and beyond just freshman year, helping to set students up for a lifetime of success.

Saga Fellows and AmeriCorps members not only help unlock students’ academic potential through targeted instructional support, but help strengthen their confidence and sense of belonging in school and math.

After college, having a proficiency in math opens new opportunities for students to pursue a wide range of post-secondary pathways and STEM careers covering diverse fields like aeronautics and biochemistry, or applying technical knowledge in law, politics, and education.