Findings from a study involving 160,000 Chicago high school students offer a cautionary tale of what can happen, in practice, when school systems require students to take algebra at a particular grade level.
Buoyed by recommendations from national mathematics experts, growing numbers of districts and states, such as New York and Texas, have begun requiring students to study algebra in 9th grade. Notably, California recently moved to require the subject even earlier, in 8th grade, although the policy faces legal roadblocks.
The Chicago school district was at the forefront of that movement in 1997 when it instituted a mandate for 9th grade algebra as part of an overall effort to ensure that its high school students would be “college ready” upon graduation.
The policy change may have yielded unintended effects, according to researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago. While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.
By the same token, the researchers say, the change did not seem to lead to any significant test-score gains for students in math or in sizeable increases in the percentages of students who went on to take higher-level math courses later on in high school.
“This policy that Chicago tried in 1997 seems to be sweeping the country now and not a lot of thought is being given to how it really affects schools,” Elaine M. Allensworth, the lead researcher on the study, said in an interview.
Her co-author, Takako Nomi, presented the findings here in Virginia on March 3 at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, a group based in Evanston, Ill., that promotes cause-and-effect studies.
“It’s not surprising that you’re going to see an increase in [failure] rates if you raise the instructional requirements and you don’t raise the supports,” said Michael Lach, the director of the school system’s office of high school teaching.
Over the past seven or eight years, he said, the district has tried to boost student-success rates under the policy, which remains in place. Steps include developing curricular materials introducing students to algebra concepts in grades K-8, requiring struggling 9th graders to take double periods of algebra, and providing more professional development in math to middle and high school teachers, Mr. Lach said.
The consortium researchers said their findings grow out of an ongoing study of the district’s across-the-board efforts to upgrade academic requirements for all students. They plan to publish a report on the effects of the double algebra periods in April.
The scholars based their findings on data gathered on 11 waves of students entering 9th grade from 1994 to 2005.
They compared changes within schools from cohort to cohort during a period before the policy took effect with a period several years afterward. They also compared schools that underwent the changes with those that already had an “algebra for all” policy in place.
Effects Varied by Ability
The researchers calculate that, for a school that saw an increase of 20 percentage points in algebra enrollment due to the requirement, for example, the percentage of 9th graders failing math would increase by 3 percentage points for students in the lowest-ability quartile, 3.5 percentage points for students in the next quartile, and 8.9 percent for students in the quartile of students who were labeled to be of “average” ability.
The failure rate was not appreciably higher, though, among the highest-ability students, most of whom would presumably have taken algebra anyway.
“We thought the average-ability kids would be better able to handle algebra than the lowest-ability kids,” said Ms. Allensworth. “But it seems to have hurt their outcomes more than the lowest-ability kids.” One possible explanation, the researchers suggested, is that the lowest group had a higher failure rate before the policy took effect.
The lack of test-score growth, Ms. Nomi said, may be because math classes included children with a wider range of ability levels following the change, which might have spurred some teachers to water down their teaching.
Whether similar sorts of algebra mandates—or efforts to teach algebra at even younger ages—would have the same impact in other locations, however, is unclear, said Leland S. Cogan, a senior researcher at the Center for Research on Math and Science Education at Michigan State University in Lansing.
“Some research suggests the longer you wait to expose students to algebra the more difficulty they have making the transition,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure in Chicago