Rigor and Readiness: Measuring the Impact of Algebra II

Students in a lecture

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of advanced high-school mathematics courses — in particular, Algebra II — in promoting college and career readiness. On one side of the debate, the champions of Algebra II cite research demonstrating that completing the course leads to success in higher education and to higher earnings (Adelman, 2006; Carnevale & Desrochers, 2003). Achieve has been one of the leading advocates for including advanced mathematics in required high school curricula, suggesting there are not only practical advantages (e.g., prerequisites for future study), but also benefits to students’ general academic development. Skills acquired through Algebra II (including but not limited to logical thinking, cognitive capacity, and complex problem solving) can support success in areas far beyond a day-to-day work environment.

This isn’t to say the debate is settled. A recent report from the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) found that the skills most important for succeeding in community college math courses were those introduced in middle school. By analyzing textbooks, assignments, and tests at seven community colleges, the researchers concluded that few students need to master advanced algebra to be successful. The NCEE report comes at a time when several states (e.g., Florida, Texas) are changing graduation requirements to make Algebra II optional, provide more flexible pathways toward high school graduation, and create space in students’ schedules for more vocational training.

Isolating the causal effect of taking Algebra II on future outcomes is a serious challenge, thanks to selection bias. It is likely that students who choose to take Algebra II in high school are higher performing and more motivated than many of their peers and thus more likely to attend and do well in college. In other words, it’s something about the type of students that take Algebra II, rather than completing the course itself, that leads to better student outcomes.

In a recent research study, my co-authors and I set about tackling this thorny issue — separating selection effects from Algebra II’s true causal effects. We will be presenting our work next week at the Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum in Long Beach, CA. We used national datasets spanning multiple decades and sophisticated econometric techniques to isolate cause-and-effect relationships between completing Algebra II in high school and subsequent college and career outcomes.

The verdict? Algebra II seems to matter more for college outcomes (including community colleges, technical colleges, and four-year institutions) than for career outcomes. Compared to their counterparts who didn’t finish Algebra II, those who did were more likely to be admitted to selective colleges, maintain higher college GPAs, stay in school, and graduate. Conversely, for students who did not apply to college after high school, completing Algebra II was not related to finding a job immediately after high school, initial occupational prestige, earnings, or career advancement.

This research indicates that students not planning to attend any college (two-year or four-year) may not benefit substantially from finishing Algebra II. That said, it’s important to highlight one caveat: Algebra II does not seem to negatively impact any career outcomes. In that respect, completing the course will keep doors open to college for the many students who do not solidify their postsecondary plans before enrolling in high school courses or starting their mathematics sequence. Some of our other interesting findings from this study will be the topic of future blog posts.