The trouble with algebra
My guest today is Debra Viadero, who reports on education research for Education Week and writes a daily blog,Inside School Research.
By Debra Viadero
Studies have long suggested that algebra is a “gateway” course. Students need to pass it in order to move on to more advanced mathematics--and they need to have at least a couple of higher-level math credits on their high school transcripts to make it into a competitive college.
That realization has led a growing number of school districts over the last couple of decades to try to ensure that all students, regardless of ability level, study the subject as early as possible, which in many cases means by 8th or 9th grade. Some newer research is beginning to suggest, however, that getting all students past the algebra hump has proved to be a knotty problem.
Its evaluation of the Chicago school system’s efforts to boost algebra course-taking found that more students completed the course by 9th grade as a result of the policy. But failure rates increased, grades dropped slightly, test scores didn’t improve and students were no more likely to attend college when they left the system than they were before the policy took effect.
The school system tried to remedy the problem in 2003 by requiring students with weak math skills in 8th grade to take two periods of algebra the following year--a regular algebra class and a second “support” class. The consortium researchers found in a subsequent study, however, that this had a mixed, and less-than-desired effect. Standardized test scores rose substantially for the students in the double-dose classes, but failure rates rose among all students, the good performers as well as the struggling students.
So the students who were targeted by the policy learned more, but they weren’t any more likely to pass the course. Elaine M. Allensworth, one of the lead authors of the study, said the high failure rates may have come about because the “double dose” classes ended up concentrating more students with attendance and behavioral problems in the same class.
The results don’t mean that all efforts to boost algebra course-taking will yield disappointing results, but they do suggest a conundrum for school districts: How do you get all students through algebra without watering down the content for higher-achieving students?
Equally important, how do you do it without reverting to tracking students into separate high-ability or low-ability classes? Like many topics in education, this is a subject on which much more research is needed.
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| February 18, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Math, Research | Tags: math, research
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