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IES Grant

Title: Access to Eighth-Grade Algebra: Helping Schools Understand Prospects for All Students
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Sorenson, Nicholas Awardee: American Institutes for Research (AIR)
Program: Improving Education Systems      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (7/1/2015-6/30/2018) Award Amount: $1,599,149
Goal: Exploration Award Number: R305A150403

Co-Principal Investigator: Kirk Walters

Previous Grant Number: R305A150201

Previous University Affiliation: University of Pittsburgh

Purpose: Researchers in this study will examine short and long term outcomes of taking Algebra I in eighth grade for students with different levels of readiness for algebra. In response to research that demonstrates that Algebra I acts as a "gateway" to more advanced course taking and success in high school, policymakers have recently expanded access to Algebra I. However, limited evidence exists about what readiness means or what the outcomes are for students with different levels of readiness. Policies that encourage enrollment in eighth grade algebra for students who are underprepared to take the course may negatively affect outcomes for at-risk students. This will be the first study to formally examine high school graduation outcomes associated with enrollment in eighth-grade algebra for average or lower performing students. This study will also explore teachers' and instructional leaders' experiences with students with different levels of readiness, as well as the perspectives of students enrolled in algebra in eighth grade. The results of this study will guide policymakers in developing course placement policies that optimize outcomes for all students.

Project Activities: Researchers will analyze administrative data for students in three large school districts using quantitative analyses. In addition, researchers will collect survey data from students, as well as interview and focus group data from teachers and school leaders, in order to explore student readiness for algebra in the eighth grade. Teachers and leaders will also review a set of hypothetical student profiles to determine whether each student should be placed in eighth-grade algebra. The goal of the qualitative component of the study is to contextualize the information from the quantitative analyses. Researchers hope to better understand the perspectives of instructional leaders and teachers regarding the most essential characteristics students need to succeed in eighth-grade algebra, as well as key challenges and supports for different types of students.

Products: The products of this project will be information about the effects of taking Algebra I in eighth grade for students at different levels of readiness, and peer reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Administrative data will be drawn from three large and diverse educational settings: Chicago, IL; Oakland, MI; and Elk Grove, CA. The survey and qualitative portion of the study will focus on schools in these districts that have students in eighth-grade algebra with large variability in prior mathematics knowledge and skills.

Sample: Historical datasets (data from grades 5–12 from the high school graduation classes of 2011–16) include approximately 99,000 students in Chicago, 29,200 in Elk Grove, and 21,400 in Oakland. Data from grades 5–10 for the graduating class of 2020 includes an estimated 24,500 students in Chicago, 4,900 in Elk Grove, and 3,600 in Oakland. Focus group/interview participants include three eighth-grade algebra teachers and one instructional leader in 24 elementary/middle schools (8 in each district) and five ninth-grade mathematics teachers and one instructional leader in one of the high schools to which elementary/middle schools feed students (192 teachers in 48 focus groups; 48 instructional leader interviews). A brief survey will also be administered to students enrolled in eighth-grade algebra within schools participating in the qualitative part of the study.

Intervention: The study is focused on outcomes associated with taking Algebra I in eighth grade (as opposed to in later grades).

Research Design and Methods: Quantitative analyses will examine the relationship between taking eighth-grade algebra and short and longer term outcomes (see Key Measures) for students with different levels of readiness. Focus groups, interviews, and experimental simulations (student profiles) will be used to examine how teachers and instructional leaders experience working with students with different levels of readiness to enroll in advanced courses and student factors essential for success. Student surveys will be administered to students enrolled in eighth grade algebra to gain the student perspective.

Comparison Condition: In the quantitative portion of the study, students with similar readiness levels who do and do not take algebra in eighth grade will be compared.

Key Measures: The quantitative analyses will examine a range of high school course taking outcomes, mathematics proficiency in high school, and on-time graduation. The four manipulated constructs in the student profile simulation are student proficiency, academic performance, motivation, perseverance in the face of difficulty. The student surveys will include measures used in other IES-funded studies of motivation, beliefs about math, support from teachers, academic press, time spent on homework, and engagement.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will use (1) descriptive analyses of the entire sample and (2) inferential analyses with a matched comparison design (propensity score matching) to compare outcomes for students who do and do not take eighth-grade algebra. To analyze data from the student profile simulation, researchers will use repeated measures analysis of variance. Survey data will be analyzed descriptively and linked to student records to examine correlations. Interview and focus group data will be coded and analyzed to determine whether what teachers highlight with regard to readiness (e.g., prior proficiency, prior course performance) aligns with what is observed in data from their districts.

Related IES Project: Pathways to Success: Developing a Teacher-Led, Teacher-Trained School-to-Jobs Intervention to Improve School Attendance and Academic Achievement (R305A140281)