Middle school students eligible to take algebra at the Brigantine North School are introduced to the subject in seventh grade, then complete the full Algebra I course in eighth grade. Students also take a regular middle school math course, for a total of 80 minutes of math per day.

“Algebra is a challenge for them in seventh grade,” said teacher Rory Roberts. “But it breaks in the concepts slowly, so they have more time to learn them and are ready in eighth grade.”

About half of all students qualify for the algebra program, which could allow them to skip Algebra I in high school and instead enroll in geometry.

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The state Department of Education is encouraging middle schools to offer Algebra I as one of its College and Career Readiness benchmarks. The state target is to have 20 percent of all students taking Algebra I in eighth grade.

But while there is research showing that students who take Algebra I in eighth grade are more likely to successfully attend college, there is also research that shows pushing students to take it before they are ready often leads to failure. Math experts worry that the state requirement could entice schools to place students who are not ready into algebra just to meet the 20 percent target.

“There certainly are some students who are ready for it in eighth grade,” said Eric Milou, a math professor at Rowan University who has written a book on teaching math to middle school students. “But what percentage is that? We really don’t know, and it won’t be the same in every school. The benchmark shouldn’t be 20 percent, it should be how many students are ready to do the work.”

He said the only students who really need Algebra I in eighth grade are those who plan to take Calculus in 12th grade.

“And we know that’s not a really big number,” he said.

State Department of Education officials said the 20 percent target was chosen to encourage but not require schools to offer Algebra I.

“It acknowledges the fact that algebra is a clear marker of a student’s success that continues throughout high school and into college and career,” department spokesman Mike Yaple said. “Yet it also reflects the DOE’s position that the inclusion of algebra in the School Performance Reports should not be interpreted to mean that all students should take algebra by the eighth grade.”

Mixed into the controversy are the national Common Core Standards for math, which have been adopted by New Jersey. Those standards integrate algebraic concepts in earlier grades, making the standard middle school math more challenging. The Algebra I program also has more rigor and depth, and the standards themselves warn against placing students into a course before they are ready.

In 2015, students will also begin taking a new state test in Algebra I, aligned to the Common Core standards. Passing that test will become a high school graduation requirement, so placing students in a course before they are ready will have consequences beyond a poor grade.

Locally, middle school educators are reviewing their programs and revisiting criteria for which students will be allowed to take the new Algebra I.

A review of local schools shows about half of the middle schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties met the 20 percent target in 2012-13. But students had varying levels of success. Many schools reported 100 percent of those students got at least a C in the course, but others, especially in urban districts, had lower passing rates, with about a third of the students scoring lower than a C.

In Linwood, students take algebra as early as seventh grade and can take geometry in eighth grade. But that will change next year when the district offers the Common Core Algebra I only to eighth graders because of the new level of rigor and depth, director of curriculum Jill Yochim said. Northfield will do the same, offering either Algebra I or Grade 8 Math, Superintendent Janice Fipp said.

Yochim said the Common Core middle school math model begins teaching algebra concepts in sixth grade, so students begin learning the concepts earlier and will be prepared for the more rigorous course.

The push for middle school algebra began in the 1990s and grew out of concerns that most middle school math was not very rigorous. Algebra was seen as the gateway to college success and became a national goal.

But as more schools added algebra, there were growing concerns that teachers were not well trained, students were not well-prepared and courses got watered down to meet student skill levels. National reports such as “The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth Grade Algebra” by the Brown Center at Brookings, showed more students were taking algebra, but based on national test results, many were not really learning it. Low-income students, less likely to have access to private tutoring to help them catch up, struggled the most.

Local educators said their goal is to give students the proper preparation in earlier grades, and not place them into algebra before they are ready.

Brigantine Superintendent Brian Pruitt said students are identified based on grades and state test scores, then attend a summer program at the end of sixth grade. The two-year academic program gives them time to absorb the material and makes it possible to offer the program to more students.

“We want to offer it to as many students as we can, but we want them to be ready for it,” he said. The district also has a new middle school math curriculum aligned to the Common Core.

School performance reports for about a dozen local middle schools show they did not offer Algebra I at all, but school officials said the reports can be misleading and reflect the difficulty of providing Algebra I, especially in a small district.

Adrienne Shulby, superintendent in Egg Harbor City, said faculty in her district teach algebra in eighth grade math but do not call the course Algebra I, so they do not report it to the state. She said students who take it are eligible to test out of Algebra I as freshmen in high school, and many do.

Because of financial constraints and the small number of eligible students, Woodbine offers algebra within the eighth grade math class as an independent study group, and those students are not reported to the state. Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said they have eight students in the sixth-grade Advanced Math Class this year, so she is hoping to be able to have a separate Algebra I class for them in eighth grade.

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