Assessment

‘Double Dose’ of Algebra Found to Lift Scores, Not Passing Rates

Chicago policy had mixed effect on grades, little on failure rates
By Sean Cavanagh — April 16, 2009 3 min read
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Chicago students’ test scores increased after they were enrolled in “double-dose” algebra classes, though the policy’s impact on their grades and course failure rates was mixed, a new study has found.

Many schools around the country are trying to help struggling students by providing them with an extra period of math instruction. Introductory algebra is a particularly difficult hurdle for students, many of whom arrive in that course without the skills necessary to master the language of x and y.

The authors, from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, say the double-dose policy did not achieve one of its primary goals: reducing failure rates in 9th grade algebra. Those rates were largely unchanged.

Yet the policy also sought to boost “students’ algebra skills through more and better algebra instruction,” the authors concluded. “It succeeded in doing this.”

The impact on student grades was less conclusive. The grades of most 9th graders in the double-dose classes rose with the policy—but not among the lowest-performing students in those courses, the authors found.

The study was published this month in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. It was authored by Takako Nomi, a senior research analyst at the Chicago consortium, and Elaine M. Allensworth, a co-director of statistical analysis there. The consortium conducts independent research focused on the 408,000-student system.

Last month, the two authors published a study that found that after Chicago mandated in the late 1990s that students take algebra in 9th grade, failure rates increased. (“Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure in Chicago,” March 11, 2009.)

Chicago created the double-dose policy in 2003, in an effort to help struggling students. The policy required all first-time 9th graders who scored poorly on 8th grade math exams to enroll in two-period algebra classes.

The study examined student performance the year the policy was implemented, and one year later, against the three previous years.

While overall test scores among double-dose students improved, the scores of the lowest-performing students rose less. Before the 2003 policy, many of those students were enrolled in self-contained algebra classes geared toward special education students.

The authors speculate that those students may have struggled because they weren’t ready for algebra. Their teachers also may have lacked strategies for working with them, while also juggling the needs of students at other ability levels, the authors say.

Positive Tracking?

Higher-achieving students, assigned to single-period algebra class, also saw their math test scores rise after they were separated from their double-dosing peers. Yet they also saw their failure rates increase and their grades decline during the policy’s first year—a “surprising” finding, Ms. Nomi said.

Those higher achievers’ in-class performance may have suffered because of stepped-up competition, or higher teacher expectations for students’ work, Ms. Nomi suggested. Some students may have lost confidence and put forward less effort, she added.

Overall, double-dosing resulted in Chicago students being “tracked,” by ability level, the authors found. Tracking is often criticized for sorting lower-achieving students and not encouraging them to improve.

Yet in Chicago, “students learned more in homogenous low-ability classrooms,” the authors found, “when they were provided with additional coursework and their teachers received new curricular resources.” Similarly, they said, scores rose for high-ability students tracked into single-period classes.

Michael Lach, who oversees high school curriculum for the Chicago schools, said the district has made significant investments in providing extra help for students who struggle in algebra and increasing the preparation of math teachers working with them.

“That support seems to have made a difference,” Mr. Lach said.

Mr. Lach said he was encouraged by the increased test scores, though he worried about persistently high failure rates and low grades discouraging students. “We knew the double-dose strategy was complicated and might have some trade-offs,” Mr. Lach added. If the goal is to improve algebra skill, he said, “on that count, the policy does help.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week

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