• Paula Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2018 •

Paula JohnsonPolicymakers, educators, parents and students are concerned with the quality of education. But there are many views about how we define “quality.” Nationally, we see too few high school graduates who are academically prepared for college. One of the prevailing arguments that lingers is about whether or not to require students to take Algebra II in high school. This article will make the case for Algebra II, discuss implications for policymakers and practitioners, and offer recommendations for teaching and learning.

Expert Testimony

There is a steady trend nationally that has turned the focus on education toward increasing the percentage of high school graduates who are prepared for college and career. Royster, Gross & Hochbein (2015) warn that the process of becoming college ready begins long before students enter their senior year of high school. Their research suggests that a student’s college-readiness indicator is highest in the eighth grade.

Findings also reveal a positive correlation with advanced course enrollment, particularly in math. Most students take Algebra I in ninth grade, geometry in 10th, and Algebra II in 11th. Depending on their graduation plan, many will take a fourth-year course like pre-calculus or college algebra.

It is important to note that a large part of the college readiness standards is algebra related. And since the PSAT (taken in 10th grade) and the SAT (taken soon after) contain Algebra II questions, there is a strong rationale for beginning the sequence with Algebra I in eighth grade, so that Algebra II is taken in 10th.

Texas stopped requiring Algebra II for high school graduates in 2014. However, researchers in math education advise parents to strongly encourage their students to take Algebra II (Gaertner, et al.; Ketterlin-Getter, 2014).

Required or not, Algebra II provides an avenue to college for the many students who are unsure of their plans after high school.

Equity in Education

Ensuring that students are college ready is a challenge that spans primary, secondary and higher education. There has been a 25.5 percent increase in the number of students taking the ACT exam from 2012 to 2016. An estimated 64 percent of high school graduates, or approximately 2.1 million students, took the exam. But only 26 percent of the class of 2016 who took an ACT exam demonstrated college readiness in all four subjects (2016). These results are even more disturbing when seen through an equity lens.

There is little variation in the percentages of high school graduates who take the ACT by race-ethnicity since 2012. And unfortunately, underserved students fall well below the average for all students on the mathematics assessment, namely African American (13 percent), American Indian (18 percent), Hispanic (27 percent), and Pacific Islander (29 percent) students. White students are above average at 50 percent, and Asian students far exceed the average at 70 percent (see charts on the next page).

Underrepresentation by students of color in graduation rates and college readiness benchmarks means fewer students enrolling in college or earning a degree (Royster, et al., 2015). Similarly, lower college readiness among high school graduates also limits the projected needs of the U.S. workforce – especially in the growing numbers of jobs that require higher levels of post-secondary education, which also earn an increase in lifetime earnings (Royster, et al., 2015; ACT, 2016).

The Court of Public Opinion

Disclaimer: I love math! Yes, I said it. I simply love everything about math. I know there are those who see math as the enemy. But, I believe the problem lies in the way we teach math, not in the math itself.

I decided to put aside my own thoughts and feelings before writing this article and reach out to the “masses” for input. In this technology-driven information age, I wanted to know what people had to say.

I posted the following to my Facebook and Twitter accounts: “I’m expanding my invitation to chime in on an article I’m writing. I want opinions from experts in the field, teachers, parents, students, etc. Word association: College Readiness and Algebra II… Go!”

Additionally, I asked when they thought students should take Algebra I.

Most replies encouraged students taking Algebra II and teaching Algebra I in eighth grade. In addition, there were some interesting recommendations. They included summer math camps, teaching for mastery, and engaging students in higher level math activities at younger ages.

Several people related their success in college courses to their success in Algebra II in high school. One former colleague recalls the high level of rigor Algebra II used to hold. Changes in curriculum and standards leave a wide range of topics open for debate.

Simply put, there is a lack of fidelity when it comes to instruction. Does that mean we stop teaching it? Or do we find ways to do a better job of teaching?

My colleague, Hector Bojorquez stated: “Until we revolutionize how we think about algebra or calculus, we will never know how we can use it in our daily lives. Math is the most essential but least understood language in human history.”

Given opportunities to negotiate their understanding of these topics, with guidance from knowledgeable teachers, students can be successful in math, especially Algebra II.

Closing Arguments

Students can be successful in advanced math. We must stop making Algebra II the bad guy. Salman Kahn (2016) of Khan Academy put it this way: if we knowingly build on a shaky foundation, we can’t blame the contractor when it falls apart.

Most school systems score students on a series of skills based on a fixed time frame. Several of my respondents encourage educators to address gaps in students’ understanding along the way. They encourage focusing on mastering skills over time rather than the time it takes to master the skills. Students would be much more successful if they entered with full mastery of the previous content.

Listen to our Classnotes Podcast Episode: “Why Algebra II?” 

Teachers and parents can support students who are struggling in math with the help of many free online resources. Below is my list of current favorites and brief descriptions from the websites.

  • www.khanacademy.org/math – Expert-created content and resources for every course and level. Always free. Watch videos and practice your skills for almost any math subject.
  • mathbits.com – Creative and engaging activities and resources for junior and senior high school mathematics
  • www.mathsisfun.com – Math explained in easy language, plus puzzles, games, worksheets and an illustrated dictionary. For K-12 kids, teachers and parents.
  • www.mathplanet.com – An online resource where one can study math for free.
  • www.purplemath.com – Practical math help provided by informal lessons. Get help with your math concept questions and learn how to succeed!
  • mckellarmath.com – Created by Wonder Years actress, Danica McKellar, to explain math concepts in fun, easy-to-digest ways and to show kids that math is an inherent part of the world around them.

The Verdict

It is time to bring more equity and agency into the math classroom. After all these years, our recipe math for public education still needs some work. However, I maintain that Algebra II is a necessary ingredient.

State and local education agencies must continue to work toward some non-negotiables. First, we have an obligation to address the instructional needs of our teachers. A degree in mathematics or a related field does not always mean someone is prepared to teach math.

Second, we must support the learning needs of students. It is essential to embrace mastery over moving on. Given opportunities to negotiate their understanding of these topics, with guidance from knowledgeable teachers, students can be successful in math, especially Algebra II.


ACT. (2016). The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2016: National.

Gaertner, M.N., Kim, J., DesJardins, S.L., & McClarty, K.L. (2014). “Preparing Students for College and Careers: The Causal Role of Algebra II,” Research in Higher Education, 55(2), 143-165.

Johnson, P. (2018). “Getting it Just Right! – Rigor and College Prep for All,IDRA Newsletter. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Johnson, P. (January 30, 2014). “Why Algebra II?” Classnotes Podcast Episode 133. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Johnson, P. (April 18, 2011). “Higher Math for All,” Classnotes Podcast Episode 87. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Khan, S. (2016, September). TED Talk: Let’s Teach for Mastery – Not Test Scores.

Ketterlin-Geller, L. (2014, June). Five Good Reasons to Take Algebra II, webpage. Dallas, Texas: SMU.

Royster, P., Gross, J., & Hochbein, C. (2015). “Timing Is Everything: Getting Students Back on Track to College Readiness in High School,” High School Journal.

Paula Johnson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate and National Director of Policy and is associate director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]