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A Double Dose of Math Has Diminishing Returns, Study Finds

Doubling up on math classes for a year may help middle school students in the short term, but the benefits of doing so depreciate over time—and are likely not worth the price of missing out on instruction in other subjects, according to a new study published by Stanford University's Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Eric Taylor, a doctoral student at Stanford, looked at 6th grade students in the Miami-Dade County district who were assigned to take two math classes, one regular and one remedial, after having scored just below a predetermined cut score on the state math test the prior spring. He compared them with 6th graders who scored just above the cut score, and therefore took a regular schedule with one math class and one elective. 

At the end of the year, students with double math scored substantially higher than their peers who took just one math class. However, a year after returning to the traditional schedule with one math class, those gains were about half as large. Two years into a regular schedule, that difference was down to about one-third of the original gain. 

And when those students reached high school, the gains all but diminished completely. 

"For example, treated students were no more likely to have completed Algebra I by the end of 9th grade or to have completed Algebra II by the end of high school," Taylor wrote in the report. 

In addition, Taylor notes, students who took two math classes in Miami missed out on an elective, such as a physical education, art, or foreign language, what he terms a potentially important "opportunity cost."

This research is particularly notable in light of a 2012 study that examined the effects of a double-dose algebra policy in Chicago and came to a very different conclusion. That study (coauthored by by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University, Joshua Goodman of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University) found that requiring some 9th graders to double up on algebra instruction had "positive and substantial" long-run benefits, including improvements to performance on college-entrance exams, high school graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates. 

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