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.