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Algebra-for-All Policy Harmed High-Achievers, Study Finds

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.

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 grouping.

"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.

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 students."

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