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The relationship between math performance in grades 3–8 and later academic outcomes — May 2017


What does the research say about how math performance in grades 3–8 relates to later academic outcomes, such as secondary math course completion, high school math performance, and high school completion?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the relationship between students’ math performance in grades 3–8 and their later academic outcomes. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Allensworth, E. M., Gwynne, J. A., Moore, P., & de la Torre, M. (2014). Looking forward to high school and college: Middle grade indicators of readiness in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research at University of Chicago. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “There is a very large population of students who struggle with the transition from the middle grades to high school, raising concerns that high school failures are partially a function of poor middle grade preparation. As a result, middle grade practitioners are grappling with questions about what skills students need to succeed in high school, which markers they should use to gauge whether students are ready to succeed in high school and beyond, and whether it is possible to identify in middle grades students who are likely to struggle in high school and college. This report is designed to provide a detailed picture of the relationship between students’ performance in the middle grades (grades five through eight) and their subsequent performance in high school and college among students in the Chicago Public School (CPS). Key findings are included to help practitioners and policymakers set realistic goals for improvement.”

Claessens, A., & Engel, M. (2013). How important is where you start? Early mathematics knowledge and later school success. Teachers College Record, 115(6), 1–29. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Children’s early skills are essential for their later success in school. Recent evidence highlights the importance of early mathematics, relative to reading and socioemotional skills, for elementary school achievement. Key advocacy groups for both early childhood and mathematics education have issued position statements on the importance of early mathematics, arguing that mathematics education for 3- to 6-year- olds is essential to promoting future mathematics achievement. Focus of Study: Despite the fact that advocates and researchers are focusing on early math skills, we are still learning about the mathematics knowledge and skills young children typically have and how these early skills affect later academic achievement and school success. This study aims to address these gaps in the extant research by investigating how early math skills predict later school success. We explore how early math skills relate to achievement, from kindergarten through eighth grade, across reading, math, and science test score outcomes, as well as grade retention and teacher-reported academic achievement. We also explore whether there is variation in the relationship between early math skills and later outcomes for children who enter school with limited math skills. Research Design: We conduct secondary analysis with data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, a longitudinal, nationally representative sample of children who were in kindergarten in 1998–1999 and were followed through eighth grade. Results: We find that early math skills predict reading, math, and science achievement as well as grade retention from kindergarten through eighth grade. Results show that kindergarten math skills in pattern recognition, measurement, and advanced number are most predictive of eighth-grade outcomes overall and for subgroups including students who enter school with low math skills. The importance of these math skills for subsequent achievement increases or is maintained over time. Conclusions: The results reported here have implications for education policy regarding mathematics instruction in the earliest years of schooling. The fact that early mathematics knowledge and skills are the most important predictors not only for later math achievement but also for achievement in other content areas and grade retention supports a greater emphasis on mathematics than is currently the case in many kindergarten classrooms. It also suggest the possibility that focusing more on advanced number, pattern recognition, and measurement might develop skills that will benefit students in the later years of schooling.”

Siegler, R. S., Duncan, G. J., Davis-Kean, P. E., Duckworth, K., Claessens, A., & Engel, M. (2012). Early predictors of high school mathematics achievement. Psychological Science, 23(7), 691–697. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Identifying the types of mathematics content knowledge that are most predictive of students’ long-term learning is essential for improving both theories of mathematical development and mathematics education. To identify these types of knowledge, we examined long-term predictors of high school students’ knowledge of algebra and overall mathematics achievement. Analyses of large, nationally representative, longitudinal data sets from the United States and the United Kingdom revealed that elementary school students’ knowledge of fractions and of division uniquely predicts those students’ knowledge of algebra and overall mathematics achievement in high school, 5 or 6 years later, even after statistically controlling for other types of mathematical knowledge, general intellectual ability, working memory, and family income and education. Implications of these findings for understanding and improving mathematics learning are discussed.”

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Foundations for success: The final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “On March 13, 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel submitted its Final Report to the President of the United States and the Secretary of Education, and it was officially released to the public on that date, as well. The Panel agrees that the delivery system in mathematics education—the system that translates mathematical knowledge into value and ability for the next generation—is broken and must be fixed. This is not a conclusion about any single element of the system. It is about how the many parts do not now work together to achieve a result worthy of this country’s values and ambitions. In this report, the Panel suggest that America has genuine opportunities for improvement in mathematics education. This report lays out many concrete steps that can be taken now toward significantly improved mathematics education, the essence of the Panel’s message is to “put first things first.” The six recommendations for making improvements include: (1) The mathematics curriculum in Grades PreK-8 should be streamlined and should emphasize a well-defined set of the most critical topics in the early grades; (2) Use should be made of what is clearly known from rigorous research about how children learn, especially by recognizing (a) the advantages for children in having a strong start, (b) the mutually reinforcing benefits of conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and automatic (i.e., quick and effortless) recall of facts, and (c) that effort, not just inherent talent, counts in mathematical achievement; (3) Citizens and their educational leadership should recognize mathematically knowledgeable classroom teachers as having a central role in mathematics education and should encourage rigorously evaluated initiatives for attracting and appropriately preparing prospective teachers, and for evaluating and retaining effective teachers; (4) Instructional practice should be informed by high-quality research, when available, and by the best professional judgment and experience of accomplished classroom teachers; (5) National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state assessments should be improved in quality and should carry increased emphasis on the most critical knowledge and skills leading to Algebra; and (6) The nation must continue to build capacity for more rigorous research in education so that it can inform policy and practice more effectively.”

Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., Siegler, R. S., & Davis-Kean, P. E. (2014). The groove of growth: How early gains in math ability influence adolescent achievement. Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A number of studies, both small scale and of nationally-representative student samples, have reported substantial associations between school entry math ability and later elementary school achievement. However, questions remain regarding the persistence of the association between early growth in math ability and later math achievement due to the increasing complexity of math knowledge required to be successful in middle and high school. The current study relates both preschool level math skills and growth in math skills over kindergarten and 1st grade to math achievement measured into adolescence. Although it was expected that the association between early math growth and later achievement would decline over time, the study found that early math growth across kindergarten and 1st grade predicts age 15 math achievement as strongly as it predicts 3rd grade achievement. The study results imply the need for high quality math instruction and interventions during the period in which students first begin their primary schooling, as growth in math ability during early elementary school appears to pay large dividends for achievement into adolescence. Tables and figures are appended.”

Other Resources

Hilgoe, E., Brinkley, J., Hattingh, J., & Bernhardt, R. (2016). The effectiveness of the North Carolina early mathematics placement test in preparing high school students for college-level introductory mathematics courses. College Student Journal, 50(3), 369–377. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Since its establishment in 1996, the North Carolina Early Mathematics Placement Testing (NC EMPT) Program has provided a low stakes reality check of readiness for college-level mathematics to more than 600,000 high school students statewide. The program strives to help reduce the percentage of incoming college freshmen requiring mathematics remediation. The current study involved matched high school and college level data on n=3564 students who attended high school in NC, completed the NC EMPT between 2001–2004, and subsequently enrolled at East Carolina University. Student performance on NC EMPT is matched with later college-level mathematics course information and six-year graduation rates. Students who failed the NC EMPT enrolled in remedial courses at significantly higher rates (42% versus 11% among those that pass the NC EMPT) and were significantly more likely to fail both remedial algebra and college algebra. While there are no significant differences in the six-year graduation rates between those who do and do not pass the NC EMPT, those that passed did finish with significantly higher mean GPAs (3.06 versus 2.91, p < 0.0001). Results indicate that the NC EMPT is a useful and powerful early warning tool in assessing the readiness of high school students for college algebra.”

McKee, T. M., & Caldarella, P. (2016). Middle school predictors of high school performance: A case study of dropout risk indicators. Education, 136(4), 515–529. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Dropping out of high school has negative results and implications for individuals and society. The likelihood of dropping out is attributed to both social and academic risk factors. Poor high school attendance, low course completion, and low grade-point-average (GPA) have been identified as three leading indicators that students are at risk for dropout. Early identification of at-risk high school students is critical during the first semester of ninth grade. This study utilized a single case study design with embedded quantitative statistical analyses to understand the characteristics of 416 students transitioning from three middle schools to a large suburban high school. Regression analyses were used to examine the relationship of 12 middle school indicators to ninth grade attendance, course completion, and GPA. Findings indicated that middle school GPA, grades, attendance, and ACT math scores were all strong predictors of ninth grade performances. Using these middle school risk indicators, ninth grade students at risk of school failure may be identified early and provided interventions during their first year of high school.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[Math OR mathematics] AND [“early grades” OR “3–8 grades” OR “elementary school”] AND [“academic outcomes” OR “secondary math course completion” OR “high school completion” OR “graduation” OR “dropout”]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2001 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.