As the new school year gets underway, a just-released survey finds that most eighth and ninth graders consider algebra to be their toughest subject — and the same goes for parents who say advanced math, like algebra, tops the subjects they struggle with when helping their children with homework.

The findings of the national survey are significant because algebra is regarded by many educators, including the U.S. Department of Education, to be a “well documented gateway course.”[1] The designation comes from its importance as the foundation for high school level math and a critical stepping stone to college and future careers—from electrician to architect.

The challenge facing our students is underscored by the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which show that only 34 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math.[2]

The nationwide survey of eighth and ninth graders and their parents was conducted between August 1 and August 8, 2011 by Kelton Research and commissioned by Sylvan Learning, the leading provider of tutoring and supplemental education services to students of all ages and skill levels.

Among the key findings:

· One in three students would be quick to sacrifice video game (36%) or Facebook (33%) privileges for a month to avoid taking algebra again.

· As students drown in anxiety over algebra, parents feel just as lost. Parents feel far more prepared to discuss delicate topics like drugs and alcohol (97%) and even sex (88%) with their child than to help with algebra homework (54%).

· Doing algebra is harder than completing tax returns. More than four out of five (82%) parents admit that they are likely to make more mistakes on their children’s algebra homework than on their tax returns.

· Six in ten (60%) parents are so unsure of their own algebra skills that they gave themselves a hypothetical grade of C or lower in their child’s algebra class.

These statistics add up to a “fear formula” in which the gap is widening between students’ needs and their parents’ ability to assist or provide the help required for success in algebra. Dr. Francis “Skip” Fennell, Professor of Mathematics Education at McDaniel College and past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, believes these numbers could be altered through simple preparation. “One of the most important considerations to student success in algebra is their readiness,” he says. “If we can identify student misconceptions, challenges, and struggles earlier, parents and teachers can provide students with the support they need to succeed.”

Sylvan Learning seeks to accomplish this with the launch of “Fit 4 Algebra: Take the Algebra Fitness Challenge,” a free interactive online “screener” that parents can use to assess their children’s algebra readiness. It consists of a 21-question algebra readiness check-up, which tests the key skills identified by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel as providing the basic foundation for algebra.

After their child completes the screener, parents will receive diagnostic results that highlight areas of strength as well as areas that are in need of further skill development. Additionally, parents will have immediate access to valuable free resources, including video-based math tutorials aligned to the skill areas where students need additional development.

“Success in algebra is a step toward success in life. Ensuring that our children are prepared to succeed is vital to our mission as an educational services company,” says Jeffrey Cohen, president and CEO of Sylvan Learning. “Every parent should know where their child stands with algebra and be in a position to help. We have researched and aggregated some of the best math and algebra resources currently available, and are thrilled to make these resources immediately accessible in one central place,” he said.

Parents who are concerned—or curious—about how well their child may measure up in algebra can take matters into their own hands by screening their child’s readiness through Sylvan’s Fit 4 Algebra website. In addition to seeing where their child stands on the Algebrometer®—an engaging visual created by Sylvan that gauges a student’s readiness level for algebra—parents can take advantage of a host of free resources, including online math challenges, entertaining games, interactive concept tutorials, and links to thousands of already-asked math questions with answers. The parent resources section also includes tips on helping children succeed in math, links to algebra smart phone apps, and information on finding personalized help, if needed.

“Parents recognize that their children are missing the mark in algebra and they need help,” says Dr. Lynn Fontana, chief academic officer for Sylvan Learning. “By taking advantage of Sylvan’s algebra check-up screener and free resources, parents can put their children back on track in the new school year and take the first step in ensuring their children’s future achievement in higher math studies, college, and ultimately their careers.”

Dr. Fennell also advises parents to determine “early on” if their children are ready for algebra by underscoring the link between algebra and future achievement. “Algebra is an important stop along the road to future success—in high school, college, and even professional earning power, so it’s critical that students know and understand the prerequisite concepts and skills that will help them succeed in algebra. Early detection is key to success down the road,” he said.

Sylvan’s free screener is available on beginning September 19, 2011. Parents of children entering middle school are encouraged to have their child take the screener to assess algebra readiness at the start of a new school year.

Do you worry about helping your kids with high level math? Or is there another subject that worries you?