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Study: Nearly 45 Percent of Students in California District Repeat Algebra

More than four out of every 10 students in a California district repeated Algebra I, according to a new study by the Regional Educational Laboratory WestOn average, repeating the course improved students' achievement—though high-performing students who repeated saw some declines. 

The study, conducted for the federal Institute of Education Sciences, looked at six years of data from 3,400 students in the East Side Union High School District and its elementary feeder schools in San Jose, Calif. Researchers found that 44 percent of the students, who were in 7th grade when the study began in 2006, repeated Algebra 1. The percentage of repeaters was even higher among Hispanic students (61 percent), English-learners (57 percent), and students with special needs (70 percent).

The most common reasons for retaking the course were low test scores and grades, though not all students who repeated it were low-performers. Eight percent of students who received an A or a B the first time they took Algebra I ended up taking the course again the next year. And 3 percent of students who scored "advanced" on the state standardized Algebra I test retook the class. 

On average, students improved by half a letter grade when they retook the course and nearly a third of a performance level on the state standardized test.

However, improvement varied based on how well students performed the first time they took Algebra I. The report states that students who initially received a low grade in Algebra I got a higher grade and higher test scores on average when they repeated. Yet students who initially received a high grade in Algebra I tended to receive higher test scores but a worse grade the second time around.

"For instance, a student with initial Algebra I grades between C and B may experience a decline in average grades of approximately 0.4 (almost half of a grade) but an improvement on average in CST [California Standards Test] performance levels of approximately 0.3," the report states. "Equipped with this information, educators can then decide whether a student with this particular prior achievement history should repeat the course."

The researchers write that more information is needed to determine why high-performers retook Algebra I. "For instance, repeating students may not have grasped certain content standards that the educators considered critical for success in future math classes," the study says. "A further study could analyze student performance on these content standards when students repeated the course."

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