Double-dose algebra helps some students

When Chicago put below-average ninth graders in “double-dose” algebra classes with twice the instructional time, failure rates were high. But double-dose algebra has significant long-term benefits, conclude Kalena Cortes, Joshua Goodman and Takako Nomi in Education Next. Compared to similar students, Chicago’s double-dose algebra students were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college (almost always community college). They earned higher ACT scores in math and verbal skills. There’s some evidence they earned higher grades in advanced math and chemistry classes.

Starting with students entering high school in the fall of 1997, CPS eliminated lower-level and remedial courses so that all first-time freshmen would enroll in algebra in 9th grade, geometry in 10th grade, and algebra II or trigonometry in 11th grade. . . .  many students were unable to master the new curriculum, resulting in very low passing rates in 9th-grade algebra.

Instead of bringing back remedial math, CPS assigned below-average students to a regular algebra class and a second  class that included “writing sentences to show how they solved a math problem; explaining how they solved a problem to the class; writing math problems for other students to figure out; discussing possible solutions with other students; and applying math to situations in life outside of school.”

Perhaps because of all the writing, double dosing was especially effective for students with below-average reading skills and “moderately low” math skills.

Double-dosed students scored nearly 0.20 standard deviations higher on the verbal portion of the ACT, were substantially more likely to pass chemistry classes usually taken in 10th or 11th grade, and earned modestly higher GPAs across all of their non-math classes in the years after 9th grade. In other words, the skills gained in double-dose algebra seem to have helped students in other subjects and in subsequent years.

Nearly half of large urban districts use a double dose of algebra for low-skilled students. However, the Chicago study suggests that extra instruction helps students who are not too far behind, but does little for the truly low achievers. Should they get extra math instruction in middle school? Elementary school? Or a path to a high school diploma that doesn’t require algebra?