A Failed Experiment: Intermediate Algebra Examined

By Daniel Zwiebach

As I sat in Intermediate Algebra last year, all I could think about was why I was learning the order of operations again. During class, as my teacher rambled on as if we hadn’t learned the material before, I kept thinking about what I could I have done to prevent this?

The real answer to this question, one that I hadn’t thought about then, was the unlucky fact that if I had been in a Geometry class any other year, then I would be with the majority of kids as a senior taking Advanced Algebra. Let me explain….

During a random Geometry class at the end of sophomore year, we were given an “Algebra Placement Test.” This test was given three times, first at random during Geometry, but when I didn’t pass I had to come in at my own convenience, lunch or tutorial, to take my second and third attempts. The test determines whether I would be in Intermediate Algebra or Advanced Algebra for my junior year. I got a 4 ½ out of 21 on my first try. Needless to say, I never got the required 16 correct. The fact that I was getting A’s and B’s in all of my previous math classes, including Geometry, that didn’t matter. This new experimental test was the only thing that was going to determine what class I would take next year.

In prior years, there had been an Intermediate Algebra, but that class was for students who weren’t ready to take Advanced Algebra or were struggling in Advanced Algebra. It was determined by your grades as well as teacher and counselor’s perception of you as a math student, not a 21 question Algebra exam in the middle of Geometry. The purpose of the placement test was to give a better understanding of who fits into Intermediate Algebra best. The main difference between prior years and last years Intermediate Algebra was that the administration now had the authority to place students in a math class simply based on a test score, without taking into account their previous math grades or a teacher’s recommendation.

This was my situation exactly. I wasn’t happy about it and to be honest, I might have overreacted a bit. I’m not saying that I was wrong when I stormed into my counselor’s office demanding to be in Advanced Algebra. But, after finding out that that was not going to happen because of the school’s “policy”, and after showing my displeasure, I sheepishly moved on to take Intermediate Algebra in my junior year.

By the second week of Intermediate Algebra, I had truly determined that I was in a 7th grade class. I found it boring and unnecessary, so that I gave up any desire to be in class. This was based on both the material of the class and the teaching styles in which the class was taught. The majority of the material was repeated from previous years and my teacher seemed to makeup the lesson plan as the class periods went on. For these reasons I saw my counselor after almost every class period in attempts to switch out, but finally I just accepted the fact that I was not going to be transferred into Advanced Algebra. Then a new problem arose in my head: Next year, I was going to be in a class with primarily sophomores and juniors as a senior.

This was the initial reason I planned on taking Advanced Algebra over the summer so that I could take a true senior class the next year as a senior. Then, after doing more research I found out that most colleges recommend four years of math. Advanced Algebra only qualifies as year three. This reinforced my decision of taking Advanced Algebra over the summer. Even though the class descriptions made it abundantly clear that each semester was a two month (minimum) class, I was still shocked when it took literally my whole summer.

In my opinion the school isn’t giving students enough power to choose what classes they want to or don’t want to take. This was the case for my Intermediate Algebra dilemma and I don’t think I am alone in this opinion. Many of my classmates felt that they should have been in Advanced Algebra, but like me, they didn’t pass the test, so they were stuck. Also, I knew students who started the year in Advanced Algebra and got moved down to Intermediate because of their first test score. If you were not placed into a class, but you could choose what class worked best for you, talk to your previous teacher, and confirm your decision with your counselor it would lead to a more effective system.