Texas District’s Push in 8th-Grade Algebra Results in High STAAR Test Scores

By 2022, nearly 100% of Socorro Independent School District's eighth-graders were taking algebra 1, a class most Texas students take in ninth grade.

a math worksheet with algebra problems

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In the last few years, the Socorro Independent School District has been preparing its middle school students to enroll in algebra once they get to the eighth grade — a class typically taken by high school freshmen — hoping to get more of them into college-level math in high school.

By 2022, nearly 100% of the district’s eighth-graders were taking algebra 1, a class most Texas students take in ninth grade. Now, five SISD schools are being recognized for having the highest middle school algebra 1 test scores in El Paso County for the 2022-23 school year.

On Monday, the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, is awarding nearly $60,000 in cash gift cards to faculty and staff at Col. John Ensor Middle School, Montwood Middle School, Rafael Hernando III Middle School and William D. Slider Middle School and the Ernesto Serna Fine Arts Academy. The non-profit funds programs in both traditional school districts and charter schools in hopes of improving student performance in El Paso.

SISD school improvement officer Carmen Crosse said the plan to get more of the district’s middle school students into a high school math class started during the 2018-19 school year. At the time, SISD had about 40% of its eighth graders enrolled in algebra 1.

By the end 2018-19 school year, 93% of those students met grade level and 73% mastered the subject in their spring STAAR exam scores.

“In 2019, we saw that kids could do more, so why not provide that opportunity to more kids?” Crosse told El Paso Matters. “Teachers and administrators were open to the idea of moving as many kids as were ready to take algebra class, and we found that they did well.”

Crosse said SISD begins preparing its students for the class as soon as they enter middle school by introducing material students would normally learn later on.

“We started adding some seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum into the sixth and the seventh grade to ensure that they have seen and reviewed that higher level material,” Crosse said. “And our teachers in the algebra classes are also providing interventions if there are gaps.”

Cade Vera, 13, an eighth grader at Sun Ridge Middle School in the SISD, said that while Algebra may be a tough subject, he is learning the concepts and enjoys the work.

“It’s different, but if you pay attention and do the work, you won’t fail,” he said. “The teacher is taking a lot of time to move us along. The students struggling are those that don’t do the work.”

Crosse said the transition was delayed when students fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the 2022-23 school year almost all of SISD’s eighth graders were taking algebra 1. Crosse noted there were a few exceptions for students who had transferred from another school district.

That year, Ensor got the highest middle school algebra 1 STAAR test scores with 84% of its total students meeting grade level.

“I want to credit my algebra 1 team who stayed after school all the time, who dedicated their personal time to come in on Saturdays and who took off half of their intercession to come be with the kids,” said Ensor Middle School Principal Stephen Fernandez. “This is a very special group. It is not the norm to have teachers be this dedicated to their craft.”

Fernandez said the school also implemented a double block schedule that required students to take an intervention class along with their regular math course after administrators saw significant gaps in its seventh-grade test scores.

Col. John Ensor Middle School’s eighth grade students got a pass rate of 84% in the Spring 2023 Algebra 1 STAAR test, the highest in El Paso County. Montwood Middle School followed with 65%, then Ernesto Serna Fine Arts Academy at 62%, Spec. Rafael Hernando III Middle School at 59% and William D. Slider Middle School at 59%. (Ramon Bracamontes/El Paso Matters)

School administrators, CREEED leaders and education experts agree that having students take algebra 1 in middle school ultimately gives them more options to decide what they want to do in high school and beyond. In particular, it can allow them to take math classes for college credit while in high school.

“It opens up other opportunities for them in high school whether they want to get into early college or any other specialty. We’re really excited about getting them prepared, opening up their schedule and giving more opportunities for them to do other things,” Fernandez said.

One of those options may be enrolling in SISD’s early college program, where students can earn an associate’s degree or 60 credit hours towards a bachelor’s degree. During the 2022-23 school year, about 450 students graduated from SISD with college degrees ranging from nursing to business and finance.

Crosse said SISD hopes that number will rise to about 600 at the end of the 2023-24 school year, as more students who took algebra 1 in eighth grade after 2019 begin to graduate.

For now, CREEED hopes to encourage other school districts to follow SISD’s lead and get at least 90% of El Paso’s eighth graders enrolled in algebra 1 through its Algebra In Middle School (AIM High) initiative. The goal is to get students enrolled in dual credit classes once they get to high school and ultimately improve their chances of succeeding in college.

“We have put a lot of focus on trying to get a higher level of preparation for post-secondary education, and algebra is one of the gateway courses,” Eddie Rodriguez, CREEED’s executive director and board secretary, told El Paso Matters. “By opening the gateway earlier you actually get a greater opportunity for students to effectively reach to the next level.”

CREEED researchers also found that having more eighth graders in algebra 1 could improve their test scores. During the 2022-23 school year, all of the top-performing middle schools in algebra 1 had the majority of their students enrolled in the class.

As part of the initiative, members of CREEED will give every faculty and staff member at the top five performing middle schools in algebra 1 gift cards ranging from $50 to $500.

Rodriguez said the organization wanted to recognize the teachers and staff — ranging from secretaries to custodians — for their roles in helping students succeed.

“We recognize that something like this comes about because of the commitment of the entire school and all of its staff. So what we decided to do in this effort is to recognize the entire school.” Rodriguez said. “It takes that kind of engagement to bring these kinds of results.”

Disclosure: The Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism. The news organization’s policy on editorial independence can be found here.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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