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Topic: Algebra-for-All Policy Harmed High-Achievers, Study Finds
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Algebra-for-All Policy Harmed High-Achievers, Study Finds
Posted: Aug 14, 2012 5:30 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Thursday, August 2, 2012. See
Algebra-for-All Policy Harmed High-Achievers, Study Finds

By Erik Robelen

The push for algebra-for-all policies may inadvertently take a toll
on high-achieving students, a new study suggests, by slowing their
rate of academic improvement.

The research looked at changes in math scores in a set of Chicago
public schools after the district enacted a policy in 1997 requiring
all 9th graders to take Algebra I. Mathematics achievement gains for
high-performers dropped in those schools most affected by the policy,
when compared with a control group, the study finds. The main reason,
it suggests, was the shift to mixed ability grouping in classrooms.

The new research, which examined test data from 1994 to 1999, was
published online this week in the journal, Educational Evaluation and
Policy Analysis. [see

The study notes that the 1997 policy "had a large and immediate
effect on students' algebra coursetaking," especially for
low-performing students.

The analysis compared two sets of public schools in the city,
involving about 60 schools overall. One group were schools that
previously separated 9th graders into different math classes,
including remedial courses for low-achievers. The other group were
schools in which Algebra I was already available to all 9th graders
before the district policy kicked in, and most students took it. The
change to algebra for all by the district was accompanied by other
curricular changes, the study notes, including the elimination of a
wide array of remedial courses across subjects and increasing high
school graduation requirements.

The study found that the rate of improvement on math tests for
high-achievers slowed in those schools that previously placed
students into different classes based on ability level.

"When eliminating remedial math classes, schools are likely to put
lower-performing students in algebra classes together with
high-performing students," says the study, authored by Takako Nomi of
the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
"Thus, peer skill levels declined for high-skill students."

She suggests that what may be happening is that teachers are
adjusting instruction to the "middle students" in a classroom, and so
the declines in peer ability levels could result in "less-challenging
content and slower-paced instruction."

In an interview, Ms. Nomi acknowledged that the study wades into some
touchy terrain in examining issues of tracking and mixed-ability

"This is highly controversial," she said. "People have very strong opinions."

But she offered up other points to keep in mind. First, she notes
that the study is not saying that mixed-ability grouping will
inevitably harm high-achievers, if other interventions are supplied.
When the policy change for algebra-for-all was made, she said, it was
not accompanied by additional supports for struggling students to
master algebra, or professional development for teachers around how
to effectively teach the subject in mixed-ability classrooms.
(However, in 2003, the district instituted a new policy to provide
additional algebra support to low-achieving students.)

Also, prior research by Ms. Nomi and several colleagues at the
University of Chicago concluded that the algebra-for-all policy
wasn't necessarily much help to low-achieving students either. That
earlier research found that although more low-achieving students
completed 9th grade with credits in Algebra I and English I, failure
rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not
improve, and students were no more likely to enter college. [see

Meanwhile, two other recent studies, one focused in California and
the other in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district,
came to a similar conclusion, finding that placing struggling urban
middle schoolers into algebra not only fails to improve their
achievement on state math tests, but also reduces the likelihood that
they will take and pass higher-level math courses in high school.

Ms. Nomi cautioned that she can't say for sure if some factors beyond
changes in classroom composition may also have contributed to the
diminished academic gains seen for high-achievers in her new study.

"Because this study is not an experimental study, we cannot rule out
these possibilities, but our current evidence suggests that the
policy led to mixed ability grouping and this, in turn, negatively
affected high-achieving students," she said.

The study concludes by offering its findings as a cautionary tale
about making changes in course mandates without other assistance.

"The current study, combined with our earlier study," it says,
"suggests that simply mandating a college-prep curriculum for all
students is not sufficient to improve the academic outcomes of all

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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