Every year over 1.3 million U.S. students drop out of high school. While the dropout rate has decreased over the past decade, the U.S. still ranks only 22nd out of 27 developed countries in graduation rate.

What is the impact of dropping out on the student? On society? Over the course of their lifetime, dropouts will earn an average of $375,000 less than a high school graduate, and $1 million less than a college graduate. High school dropouts are three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates, have a higher chance of living in poverty, and tend to be less healthy. The cost to society is also high, as 40% of young adult dropouts receive some form of government assistance and are 3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated, costing the U.S. economy and taxpayers billions of dollars annually (Educational Testing Service).

While there are many reasons why a student might drop out of high school, one subject stands above all others as a factor – Algebra. According to a study by Florida International University, students who failed Algebra 1 were four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who passed the course. Another study, in the Anchorage School District, indicates that students who pass Algebra 1 in 8th grade or earlier are twice as likely to graduate in four years as students who do not pass Algebra 1 (96% vs 48%). Other studies around the US provide similar results.

Algebra 1 presents students with academic challenges they have not yet had to face. Algebra is often the first course in which students deal with abstract reasoning and problem solving. Students are also introduced to the language of mathematics, with symbols and the rules of arithmetic operations. According to Rakes et al. (2010), the interaction of these fundamental concepts of algebra is a formidable impediment for many students trying to master algebra.

These algebra concepts are commonly taught in the 8th grade in many other countries (Schmidt, 2004). In the US the percentage of 8th graders taking Algebra 1 has been increasing, from 16% in 1990 to 27% in 2000 and 47% in 2011. However, while the overall numbers are increasing there is still a large achievement gap in the US. The ACT has reported that of ACT-tested high school graduates, 57% of Asian Americans and 46% of Caucasians meet college algebra benchmarks, compared to only 11% of African American and 24% of Hispanic Americans. A fresh approach is needed for the teaching of algebra.

It is not enough to have these students re-take algebra if they don’t pass it the first time. “Repeated failure makes kids think they can’t do the work. And when they can’t do the work, they say, “I’m out of here,” said Andrew Porter, director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Vanderbilt University. What these students need most is a review of those particular skills in which they are struggling, whether in Algebra or Pre-Algebra. However, teachers complain that they have no time for remediation. What these struggling students need is a program that can identify and address their learning gaps and address these gaps with personalized curriculum, and adapt to their learning needs as they progress through the course. Using a technology program such as Knowre, a teacher can reach each student with what they need when they need it.

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