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Study Probes Math Course-Taking, Finds Flaws in Repeating Algebra

New research takes a deep dive into the math course-taking patterns of students across 24 California districts from grades 7-12, with a special focus on better understanding "when and why students stumble and veer off track."

One thing that's clear from the study is that repeating algebra doesn't seem to work for a lot of students. Consider this: For those students who repeated algebra in grade 9, only one in five (21 percent) achieved proficiency afterward, according to the research, conducted by a team at WestEd and SRI International. It looks worse for students who first took algebra in 9th grade and took it again the next year. Only 9 percent scored proficient on a state exam following the second attempt.

This dimension of the new research raises questions about schools' decisions to have students repeat the subject, and what is happening (and isn't) during that experience, said Neal D. Finkelstein, a senior research scientist at WestEd and a coauthor of the study.

"We think there ought to be a bright line on this question of, 'Why do students repeat?' " he said. "And do districts understand the instructional strategies" needed to help them?

The report suggests that districts and schools should carefully review their course-placement policies, and simultaneously examine individual students' learning needs to provide more-targeted instructional assistance, rather than simply asking them to retake a class.

[The new research calls to mind a recent study from Chicago, which found that a district policy that requires some 9th graders to double up on algebra instruction identified "positive and substantial" longer-run benefits for participants, including improvements to performance on college-entrance exams, high school graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates.]

But this is just one strand of the study, which sought to examine patterns in math course-taking and their potential implications for educational policy and practice. In all, the study examined data on 24,000 California students who were 7th graders in 2004-05 and stayed in their district through grade 12.

"We think these transcript records are just so incredibly powerful ... to look at gaps in students' mastery patterns along their [academic] journey," said Finkelstein. A driving concern behind the research, he said, is concerns about the high levels of remediation required of many students after they leave high school and enter postsecondary institutions.

One key finding of the research, if not a terribly surprising one, is that students who perform well in 7th grade math are likely to take more advanced math courses in high school, compared with those who struggle in middle school math.

Even as Finkelstein was quick to say this was not exactly a "wow" conclusion, he said it was still important to "validate" this finding from prior research. At the same time, it doesn't tell the whole story, he notes.

For instance, one quarter of students who are very strong in math don't take a math class during their senior year, the study finds. And one-third of the study's entire student sample does not take math their senior year. The report argues that this is troubling, because taking four years of high school math strengthens a student's postsecondary opportunities. (The report, however, does not probe that particular issue.)

The report also found that the majority of students who attain proficiency on the math section of California state achievement tests have taken algebra 1 in 8th grade, geometry the following year, and algebra in 10th grade.

Ultimately, the report urges districts to carefully study their student course-taking data, including student performance in those courses and on state tests, to "untangle some of the common course sequences that their students are following and use the results to spark and inform conversations about the design of instruction in math and course placement policies."

In addition, even while the report is focused on the secondary level, the researchers say elementary math is a critical gateway, too. It says that the large variations in students' grade 7 math achievement suggest "that much work must be done in ... K-6 classrooms to ensure all students begin middle-school math with a strong foundation."

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