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Accelerated Courses in 8th Grade Math Boost AP Scores Later, Study Finds

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Encouraging students to take accelerated math classes in 8th grade, based on prior strong performance, increases their chances of scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement math exams in high school, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, by the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, found that states that "track" a larger percentage of their students—in other words, place them in more-challenging courses based on their prior performance—also boast a larger proportion of students who score a 3 or better on AP exams, the level that many colleges consider the minimum to indicate mastery of college-level coursework. The study did not find that middle school tracking correlates with higher rates of AP coursetaking; only with test performance.

The findings are part of a paper that explores several facets of American education. (My colleague Liana Heitin writes about one of the other sections of the report, the one that looks at common-core reading and math, in an article posted today.) 

For the study's author, Tom Loveless, a nagging question about 8th grade courses and AP performance revolved around the practice of tracking. He argues that American schools offer inadequate pipeline preparation for high achievement in high school, often because they're reluctant to engage in tracking, which has historically marginalized low-income students, and Hispanic and black students.

Tracking, and related forms of ability grouping, have been widely criticized as modern forms of segregation. At the high school level, they have often taken the form of placing students into vocational or college-preparatory programs based on wealth, race, perceived academic ability, and family educational background. Such practices sparked a "de-tracking" movement.

Despite concerns about tracking, however, Loveless argues that his data offer reason to consider the advantage it can confer on middle school students in attaining higher achievement in high school (and, presumably, better preparation for college).

"Just as star high school athletes do not walk onto a basketball court or football field for the first time as seniors in high school, successful AP calculus students do not encounter advanced mathematics for the first time in 12th grade," Loveless writes.

The Overlap of Higher Level Coursework and AP Performance

Loveless combines data about states' tracking practices that are drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and data about states' AP participation and performance drawn from the College Board. He examines data about the cohort of students who were 8th graders in 2009 and graduated from high school in 2013.

Utah demonstrates the correlations that Loveless writes about. Based on NAEP information, Utah is one of the states with the biggest share of students tracked into coursework in middle school: 89 percent. (The average among states is 76 percent.) Utah also produces a larger-than-average proportion of students scoring a 3 or better on an AP test in high school: 70 percent, far above the national average of 58 percent. Utah's share of students who take an AP class, however, while still above average, is only 36 percent.

While the paper cautions that the data don't support the conclusion that tracking in middle school causes higher scores on AP tests in high school, it shows a correlation. And because the correlation holds true for black and Hispanic students, Loveless urges policymakers to reconsider their opposition to tracking.

"If we are serious about expanding opportunity, and serious about increasing the numbers of students of color who not only take AP courses but also score extraordinarily well on AP tests, policymakers need to take another look at strategies for nurturing academic talent in middle schools," the paper says. "Long condemned by political opponents, tracking has been overlooked as a potential tool for promoting equity."


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See also: Despite Growth, AP Pool Is Not Diluted, Studies Say 

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