Only the really smart kids took Algebra in 8th grade when I was growing up. Sure, I was in that group, but a lot were not. Most students’ mental math is abysmal, and if it weren’t for the calculator and Excel, they’d be in big trouble managing our finances at home.

A few nights ago, my aunt, uncle, and cousins came over for dinner. My aunt was sharing with us about her 6th-grade son’s math progression in middle school, how complicated it was, and how she as a parent had just learned about this recently.

As I listened to her, I realized that common knowledge for me (because I was a middle school assistant principal for a number of years) is not common knowledge for the general parent population. So this is how middle school math typically works. Of course, it’s not the same in every single middle school but in general, this is how it goes.

In 6th grade, students take either accelerated/honors 6th-grade math or general 6th-grade math. In May, 6th-grade students take a math placement test for 7th grade.

With the results of this test, along with state standardized test scores, usually another outside source standardized math test, and teacher recommendation, students are placed either in general 7th-grade math (pre-algebra), accelerated/honors 7th-grade math (pre-algebra), or accelerated/honors 8th-grade math (algebra). Accelerated/honors 8th-grade math (algebra) covers the entire algebra textbook and is considered a complete high school level algebra math course.

Successful completion would merit high school credit. General 8th grade math (also called algebra) typically only covers half of the algebra textbook and thus is not considered a complete high school level algebra math course. Thus it would make no sense for a 7th-grade student to take general 8th-grade math (algebra) because they would simply repeat that same course in 8th grade. In 8th grade, students who took and passed Accelerated/honors 8th-grade math (algebra) would then go on to take accelerated/honors high school Geometry in 8th grade. These students are truly accelerated in math and would go on to high school to take AP (advanced placement) calculus.

Some schools offer a waiver policy/contract to avoid tracking of students. A waiver contract would allow a student to take an accelerated course, even if s/he didn’t qualify for it. Typically a waiver includes clauses such as a requirement to stay in the course until the quarter/semester ends and accepting the earned grade, which is included in the GPA (grade point average) calculation. These types of clauses are meant to help parents and students carefully consider their decision prior to signing the waiver. Parents should also consider their child’s work habits and maturity level. The reason I mention this is that those accelerated/honors 8th-grade algebra classes tend to be larger (upwards of 35-38 students), thus students are expected to be more responsible and self-motivated, and are mixed 7th and 8th-grade level classes. Not all students do well in this type of environment.

In some schools, if there is a need, 6th-grade students could take accelerated/honors 7th-grade math and then take accelerated/honors 8th-grade algebra and then accelerated/honors high school Geometry in 8th grade.

A lot of the decisions that are made about scheduling and course offerings are based on teacher staffing and ability to fit courses into the master schedule just as much as student needs and requests. I managed scheduling for 1000+ students at one of the middle schools where I worked, and it’s one of those things that’s incredibly difficult to explain to parents. Actually, it’s hard to explain to staff as well. But in general, math courses tend to drive how the rest of the master schedule shapes up. That is the reality.