Mathematics What the Research Says

Doubling Down on Algebra Can Pay Off in College, But Who Your Peers Are Matters, Too

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 28, 2021 3 min read
Johnny Rivera discusses an algebra problem with classmates at iLEAD Academy in Carrollton, Ky.
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Giving struggling 9th graders an extra helping of algebra can provide an edge in college years later—but only if students study with peers who challenge them academically.

In 2003, Chicago Public Schools required incoming high school students who did not meet initial math benchmarks to take both the standard Algebra 1 class and a second consecutive session for algebra support, usually taught by the same instructor. The policy didn’t lead to immediate gains in state tests, but over the years, studies found students who participated did have better college placement scores on the ACT in math and a greater likelihood to graduate high school and enroll in college.

Now, a dozen years later, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that among students who scored just below the math cut-off in 8th grade—who were required to take the double dose of algebra in 2003—the percentage who later earned a college degree rose from 12 percent to 17 percent, and the percentage who earned a four-year degree rose from 6 percent to 10 percent.

The catch? Those benefits accrued to students in schools that kept students in support classes of peers who were around their same skill level—and schools that combined support classes of students with minor and major algebra needs provided no benefits for any of them.

“These results suggest that for students with very low incoming math skills, additional instructional time alone was not enough to prepare them for algebra,” concluded authors Takako Nomi, an assistant education professor at St. Louis University in Missouri and from the University of Chicago, sociologist Stephen Raudenbush and data scientist Jake Smith.

Algebra is considered one of the most crucial “gatekeeper” courses for students planning to attend higher education. The Mathematics Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has found that earning As in the three foundational high school math courses—Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry—was a better predictor of whether a student would do well in college calculus than even taking calculus itself in high school.

But the researchers in the current Chicago study argue recent efforts to provide “algebra for all” have faltered because many students are not prepared mathematically to take the course at the time it is offered. Separate studies of similar double-dose math policies in districts such as Miami-Dade County, have found only short-term benefits that experts warned may not outweigh the opportunity costs of students missing out on other courses.

Nomi and her colleagues tracked the data of Chicago students who performed just above and below the 8th grade cut-off for the double-dose math class in 9th grade; these students’ scores were statistically alike enough that they were similar to being randomly assigned to the class. In 2003, the researchers found most schools adhered closely to the cut-off policy and were more likely to set support classes in algebra according to students’ needs.

By 2004, however, many schools relaxed their implementation, no longer relying on 8th grade tests to determine algebra classes, and students who performed somewhat below the median math score became much more likely to attend a double-dose math class with students of significantly lower math skills. The researchers found, for example, that these “very low” math students performed on average in the bottom 20 percent nationwide, and nearly 60 percent had been identified for special education services. More than a third of them ultimately failed 9th grade algebra, and more than half did not graduate high school.

Because the study focused on students just above and below the cut-off scores, it could not explore how well the double-dose classes worked for these lowest-performing math students, but the researchers said the results did suggest supports should be tailored to ensure students master fundamental skills in order to keep up in the primary algebra class.

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