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Study Finds Benefits to a 'Double Dose' of Algebra

New research on a Chicago policy that requires some 9th graders to double up on algebra instruction identifies "positive and substantial" longer-run benefits for participants, including improvements to performance on college-entrance exams, high school graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates.

The benefits were largest for students with "decent math skills but below-average reading skills," the study says, suggesting that this might be explained by the intervention's focus on improving students' written expression of mathematical concepts, according to an overview of the research published Thursday in the journal Education Next.

The researchers note that in a policy environment that calls for "algebra for all" by the 9th grade or earlier, it's increasingly important to identify effective interventions to help students who lack foundational math skills. They note that today, nearly half of large urban districts report double-dose math instruction as the most common way to support students with lower skills.

Recent studies in California and North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district find 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.

Chicago's double-dose policy was launched in 2003, according to the study, co-authored by researchers Kalena Cores of Texas A&M University, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University. All entering 9th graders who tested below the national median on the math portion of the 8th grade Iowa Tests of Basic Skills were required to take two consecutive periods of algebra each day, with the second class explicitly designed to provide algebra support. The second course was usually taught by the same math teacher.

To gauge the policy's effects, the study compared students who were just below the cutoff point for being assigned a double dose of algebra with those just above the cutoff. As the researchers note, those two student groups were very similar in academic skills and other characteristics, with their scores differing by a "tiny amount." But only one group took the expanded algebra courseload.

In the short term, the researchers say, there was no improvement in the failure rates on the 9th grade algebra exam (though they did find a rise in the percentage scoring a B or higher). The study calls this finding from earlier research in Chicago on pass rates "disappointing," but apparently the finding does not tell the whole story, with longer-run outcomes showing greater promise.

For one, the researchers found benefits for ACT achievement. Students who received a double dose of algebra, on average, had scores on the math portion of the ACT that were 0.15 standard deviations above that for the control group. "This is equivalent to closing roughly 15 percent of the black-white gap in ACT scores," the study says.

The double-dose students also saw increased high school graduation rates, with a 17 percent improvement when combining those who graduated in four and five years. In addition, the double-dose students were 8.6 percentage points more likely to enroll in college within five years of starting high school. Most of the increase, however, came from enrollment in two-year colleges.

"A successful early intervention may be the best way to boost students' long-term academic success," the study concludes.

Speaking of algebra, the University of Texas at Austin this week announced that it has just received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a set of math curricular units to improve low-performing students' readiness for algebra.

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