Study: Algebra for all hurt high achievers

Chicago’s algebra-for-all policy hurt high achievers who were placed in mixed-ability classes, concludes a study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, reports Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

Before the 1997 policy change, one group of high schools separated ninth graders into different math classes, including remedial courses for low-achievers. The other group placed most ninth graders in Algebra I.

The study found that the rate of improvement on math tests for high-achievers slowed in those schools that previously placed students into different classes based on ability level.

“When eliminating remedial math classes, schools are likely to put lower-performing students in algebra classes together with high-performing students,” says the study, authored by Takako Nomi of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Thus, peer skill levels declined for high-skill students.”

She suggests that what may be happening is that teachers are adjusting instruction to the “middle students” in a classroom, and so the declines in peer ability levels could result in “less-challenging content and slower-paced instruction.”

The switch to mixed-ability algebra classes wasn’t accompanied by training for  teachers or extra help for low achievers, Nomi points out, suggesting that might have helped.

Algebra-for-all didn’t help low achievers either, Nomi’s earlier research found.

. . . although more low-achieving students completed 9th grade with credits in Algebra I and English I, failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to enter college.

Placing struggling urban middle schoolers into algebra, not only fails to improve their achievement on state math tests, but also reduces the likelihood that they will take and pass higher-level math courses in high school,” adds Ed Week, citing recent studies in California and North Carolina.

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  1. That’s no surprise. The original push for 8th-grade algebra came from data which showed that kids who took algebra in 8th grade did better on various measures, including HS GPA, SATs, college attendance etc (IIRC). Since, at that time, the only 8th-grade algebra classes were honors-level, the results were hardly surprising. Those kids were the most able and motivated and they were academically prepared for algebra; in other words, they were inherently different from those kids not taking 8th-grade algebra. It was correlation, not causation. The same error was made when it was discovered that kids who took Latin also did better on those measures (the MS next to us added Latin, based on that). I think that music and debate also correlated. The same error started the AP-for-all push.

    This is why I am against mandating that all HS grads take chem, physics and algebra II (which SD has just added to their previous reqs of algebra I, geometry and bio). The big schools (and SD has only a few) will have two classes; the real version and the “lite” version for those who aren’t able to do the real thing. The small schools (most schools in the state- lots with fewer than 100 students in the school) don’t have that option. Hopefully, they will be able to use online or other suitable resources for one of the groups, so the able kids will get the real course. Again, my problem with one-size-fits-all rears its head.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      I have no problem with all kids taking Algebra I, II and Geometry. What I don’t like is when a school district out-right denies the highly qualified kids (who should be taking Algebra in 7th grade and geometry in 8th or they will be bored beyond belief) the ability to take the classes. Yes, I am all for tracking and ability grouping.

      We need to stop the one size fits all and educate the individual child to their highest level and stop making things easy for the adults or look good for the districts.

      Kids are the reason we “do” education. Sadly…more and more they are not being educated.

      • I think there should be different requirements, based on HS track chosen. In my day, kids chose their path at HS entry. Even within voc ed, different choices should have different requirements; cosmetology, office/secretarial, auto mechanics, wood shop, medical/nursing assistant. I’m not at all convinced that, for instance, cosmetologists need geometry, chem, physics or higher math. My hairdresser had none of the above, but she’s very good at what she does; she has the highest number of specific-stylist requests at the shop.

        • Crimson Wife says:

          My high school had 3 different algebra 1 classes: honors college-prep, regular college-prep, and a two-year sequence for struggling students (algebra 1A and algebra 1B). *IF* schools are going to do “algebra for all”, then there needs to be similar tracking. Unfortunately, the school my kids are zoned for doesn’t offer ANY honors classes until 11th grade (long after algebra 1 is taken in 8th).

  2. Ability grouping has several benefits:

    – students are with others at their rough skill level – therefore, when they experience difficulty, chances are that others will, too, and the teacher will be able to effectively use class time to bring all up to speed.
    – kids in the top half are bored in non-tracked classes. They sometimes vent their annoyance at those who are befuddled by making unkind comments, loud sighs, and laughing. So, how does that help the self-esteem of those who are struggling?
    – the general skill level of the non-tracked class leads to the less-skilled not wanting to ask questions – they fear “looking dumb”.
    – in tracked classes, the work is aimed at leading from where the student is at to where you want them to be. It’s a stretch for some, but a reachable stretch.
    – the teacher’s work load is lessened – fewer discipline issues to address, less differentiation needed in the planning.

    The move to “untracked” classes comes from those parents who are embarrassed that their student is not in a class (Honors) that they can slap on a bumper sticker, and lord it over all the rest of the parents. They push to get their kid in the “good” class, no matter what.

    And, in science and math classes, it hurts the students – ALL of them. The high level, whose coursework is limited to the average student, the low level, who don’t get the targeted help they need, and the average student, whose classes contain many acting-out students who disrupt the classes and take up the teacher’s time with discipline.

    Students whose parents have money by-pass all this by getting “gifted and talented” classes – many of which are NOT solely populated by the g & t students – to avoid the “leveled” classes.

    Problem solved – for THOSE parents. NOT for the rest.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Most public schools these days don’t offer any GATE classes. Bright students whose parents have money in my area by-pass this by fleeing the public schools entirely.

      • But they should, complete with acceleration and the existence of exam schools at MS and HS levels. The most able and motivated kids deserve to have their educational needs met as much as do kids in spec ed. It’s a win for the larger society, because these kids are highly likely to be highly productive adults.

  3. SuperSub says:

    I have yet to see a teacher successfully educate a mixed ability class with any rigor. Its a myth.

    • And, it’s physically impossible. But administrators and educrats don’t care, because they can just blame the teacher when the impossible doesn’t happen, and say their directives from on high were PC correct…

  4. Well, since students of high achievement are often called on to help the students who aren’t as bright/smart/whatever, I don’t see how mixed ability classes help high or low achieving students, but it’s a fact that the best and brightest in our schools aren’t really challenged at a regular public school, but they thrive best in private or homeschooling environments.

  5. The grading scale used in most schools adds to the problems. A passing grade of 60% along with the pressure to pass everyone means that many students can hit perfect scores with no effort. Not only are they not challenged they also become convinced that the subject is inherently easy.

    For mixed ability classes it would be much better if the passing percentage would be about 20%. This would permit teachers to challenge the better students and still require something of the stragglers.

    Of course, most people won’t go for this because they associate high percentages with high achievement ignoring the effect of difficulty level.

    • I get what you’re saying. But I think the passing score for math needs to bet set *higher,* not lower.

      If you only get 60%, you haven’t mastered the subject. And in math every class builds on the previous one. So you get algebra classes full of people who can’t do fractions. With predictable results: a bunch of high school graduates who never understood algebra OR fractions.

      • If you take an AP calc exam and score in the zone of 70% that should get you a 5. So what percentage will net you a 3 which could net you college credit?

        In IB physics you start off answering two questions out of three on parts 2 and 3, so you can get a 7, the highest mark, knowing “only” 67% of the material. What’s the percentage for passing with a 4?

        What makes AP and IB work isn’t some magical curriculum but freedom from the standard 60% is passing. This means that the tests and the materials can be made challenging enough for the entire class.

        Suppose that “Bob” “passes” a test with 60%. You’re happy. But suppose the teacher had ADDED a couple of challenging problems to the test. “Bob” would have answered the same questions but now the percentage is below 60%. HORRORS! Yet Bob may have learned something from attempting questions too difficult for him and the bright kids would have gained a lot from answering them.

        60% on a test does not mean 60% of the material. That’s crazy. It’s 60% of test of arbitrary difficulty.

        Also, what does “mastering the subject” mean? If a kid “masters” physics with a 99% average then why do we make him take freshman physics, followed by subjects like mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetic theory? Clearly, he never “mastered” the subject, he just got a good start.

        When I taught IB physics I started them on IB questions from old exams. Of course I cherry-picked the questions that dealt with what we had covered. Initially they couldn’t answer ANYTHING correctly. They’d never been exposed to anything that difficult. Eventually, they got better because they realized they had to really think and that the answer wouldn’t pop up and bite them on the nose. But if we graded on the 60% is passing the highest grade would be a C throughout most of the year.

        Also, the fact that the percentages were “low” made the kids take the subject seriously, even the very smartest kids; they NEVER took a test for granted. In regular classes, where the lowest grade was 60% (failing people can often be career suicide), the top third of the class EASILY scored near 100% and were convinced that they were physics geniuses and that there was little for them to learn.

        The 60% is passing scale, along with the unspoken mandate that no one fails, contributes to the dumbing down of the US.

      • I’d like to add the following: the 60% idea would work IF and only IF we were willing to fail arbitrary numbers of students and demand that they repeat the class if they don’t hit our 60% mark. But that’s not what is happening. We want no one repeating grades and no one not graduating. Politically, I think it’s much more viable to have a low passing percentage as policy and allow teachers to make classes challenging. At the very least then average and above average kids would learn as much as they could.

  6. In far too many schools, not only are the top kids (CW’s honors and AP) kids not challenged, but neither are the middle-to-upper middle (regular college prep and those who could/would head to challenging vo tech). Neither group acquires a good work ethic, learns the value of persistence or learns study/note-taking skills; because they can get good grades without any of these desirable habits and behaviors. This also occurs at ES-MS levels, of course. And the pressure to end leveled classes extends to grades given, of course. Flunking even a quarter of the class is rarely acceptable, no matter how richly deserved. BTW, I cannot buy the “damage self-esteem” argument against ability grouping. In my small-town school (30 per grade), we all knew exactly where we stood in the grade, in all subjects – within the first week of school. Besides, schools shouldn’t care about self-esteem; self-control, work ethic, decent manners and academic progress are more important.

  7. A student who is sliding by with a passing grade of 60% (A D Minus) is going to find they’ll have a VERY hard time getting into any college/university without need a load of remedial coursework.

    Students need to start learning at the beginning of middle school that there is a price associated with low performance or failure, and that it will have lasting effects.


    • I’d say that should be the message from kindergarten entry; specific knowledge and skills are required for advancement. Report cards should indicate where kids REALLY are, backed up by std test results (NOT state testing). Kids and their parents need to be able to see that Johnny’s Bs are not reflected in his performance on the ITBS (or other suitable test). Kids and parents need to know how performance relates to the kid’s readiness for college prep or challenging vo tech – while it’s still possible to fix deficiencies. As kids progress through the grades, the testing for kids at the top needs to be adjusted, in order to show real achievement levels (the reason 8th-grade SATs are often used for HS magnet applications). Schools that have HS sophomores with 5th-grade knowledge and skills and think they can become nurses or engineers, because they have good grades, are victims of educational fraud.

      • I had a kid who was at the BOTTOM of my worst class and he thought he’d be an engineer. Of course if you raise such an issue in eduland you’ll hear things like “I hope you’re encouraging him” or “you have to make him realize that you’ll do anything to make him succeed”.

        It’s easy to see how he came to embrace his delusions.

        I think that many edufolks are so used to their edufluff coursework that they severely underestimate how much it takes to make it in other disciplines.

  8. Unless the kid takes a GOOD look at what a first year engineering student is expected to take, he’ll never make it.

    A decent engineering program first year will look something like this:

    Calc I/II
    Engineering Physics I/II
    English 101/102
    Political Sci/US History
    Digital Logic/Programming
    Sociology/Psych/Enconomics/Intro to Philosophy (Logic)

    Something tells me that your student is seriously deluded if he thinks that being the lowest performing student in class will get him through the coursework I just outlined.

  9. The path for Math for a high school diploma, from 8th through 12th Grade, should be either:

    1) Honors Path: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, PreCalculus, Calculus

    2) Regular Path: 8th Grade Math, Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Financial Math

    Of course, in the Special Ed path, anything goes, because the school district doesn’t want to get sued by the parents… So everything from legal cheating to made up fictional classes for the transcript is all OK here.