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OPENING DOORS AND CLOSING GAPS: Study Finds That Objective Measures of Student Performance Boost Access to Advanced Math for Traditionally Underserved Students

According to recent research, students of color and those from low-income families typically have less access than their white peers to rigorous and advanced course work, even within the same school. But policies that place students in advanced courses based on test scores and other standardized measures of academic performance, rather than subjective criteria such as teacher recommendations, potentially can reduce the role that income and race often play in assigning students to upper-level classes.

That finding appears in a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Early Math Coursework and College Readiness: Evidence from Targeted Middle School Math Acceleration. The study examines the impact of a targeted enrollment strategy used in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) to identify incoming middle school students capable of succeeding in eighth-grade algebra. The WCPSS process analyzes a student’s prior test scores to predict the likelihood that he or she will pass the state’s standardized end-of-course algebra test. Students whose predicted probability of success exceeds 70 percent enroll in an accelerated math track that enables them to complete algebra in eighth grade. All other students pursue course work leading to algebra in ninth grade.

District leaders implemented the new policy in School Year 2010–11 hoping it would boost overall enrollment in eighth-grade algebra and also provide more equitable access, particularly for students of color and those from low-income families. After just two years, the percentage of middle school students enrolled in accelerated math courses rose from 40 percent to almost 70 percent, according to the NBER study. Furthermore, the access gap that previously existed between students of color, students from low-income families, and affluent white students with comparable academic skills shrank substantially. The access gap between students from low-income and affluent families decreased by two-thirds and “there was no statistically significant racial gap,” the study says. “Black and white students in the same school, same grade and of the same academic skill therefore appear to have equal exposure to accelerated math coursework [sic].”

The new policy increased by 26 percentage points the rates at which African American and Latino students with comparable academic skills participated in accelerated math classes, according to the NBER study. But the policy did not narrow the achievement gap between students of color, students from low-income families, and their affluent white peers. African Americans, Latinos, and students from low-income families remained substantially more likely to fall in the bottom quarter of students based on academic skills, and consequently, represented a smaller percentage of the total population of students enrolled in accelerated math courses, the study says.

Although the new policy expanded students’ access to advanced math classes, it did not guarantee that students performed well in those courses or remained on the accelerated path, the study finds. Of the students who enrolled in accelerated math in seventh grade, only 59 percent progressed to algebra in eighth grade and only 40 percent progressed to geometry in ninth grade.

Persistence rates also varied considerably by income and race, according to the study. By ninth grade, 86 percent of affluent students remained on the accelerated track and enrolled in geometry, compared to only 20 percent of students from low-income families. Among students of color, only 34 percent of African American and Latino students progressed to ninth-grade geometry. Although roughly 95 percent of all students in the accelerated track passed their advanced math classes, the study finds that nearly all of them did so by earning Cs and Ds. That pattern holds true in both algebra and geometry and between racial and income groups. The study does not find any connections between participation in accelerated math classes and students’ later test scores.

“These results suggest targeted math acceleration has potential to increase college readiness among disadvantaged populations but that acceleration alone is insufficient to keep most students on such a track,” the study says. “The targeted acceleration rule did substantially increase the proportion of students, including black and Hispanic students, enrolled in the college-readiness math track at the start of high school. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into subsequent educational and economic success or whether the observed leakages fully diminish the policy’s impacts.”

Early Math Coursework and College Readiness: Evidence from Targeted Middle School Math Acceleration is available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w21395.

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