Panel Paper: Getting to Algebra for All: Preliminary Evidence of a Middle-School Math Acceleration Policy

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 3:20 PM
Washington Ballroom (Westin Georgetown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Shaun Dougherty1, Lindsay Page2, Darryl Hill3, Joshua Goodman2 and Erica Litke2, (1)University of Connecticut, (2)Harvard University, (3)Wake County Public Schools
Driven by national imperatives around mathematics education and by concerns about inequitable access to advanced mathematics, hotly debated universal algebra policies have gained traction. At the heart of the debate lies a tension regarding student readiness for algebra. Selective, non-systematic entry may deny access to students fully prepared for algebra course work, in turn limiting future opportunities. On the other hand, universal algebra policies may force unprepared students into a course in which they are unlikely to succeed. The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), the largest school district in North Carolina and the 16th largest in the nation with approximately 150,000 students, recently responded to such concerns regarding advancement in and equitable access to mathematics. In contrast to blunt algebra-for-all policies, WCPSS sought to increase advanced mathematics course-taking by ensuring that all students who are prepared to be successful in Algebra I are enrolled as early as possible in their academic trajectory. Beginning in 2010, WCPSS implemented a targeted enrollment strategy through which they utilize a numeric criterion developed by the SAS Institute’s Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) to determine student eligibility for placement in advanced math coursework in the middle grades, including Algebra I in grade 8. We investigate the impact of this policy on student end-of-year assessments in mathematics in grades 6, 7, and 8 during the policy’s first two years of implementation.

WCPSS contracted SAS to construct a prediction model that capitalizes on extant student test scores from previous grades to predict each student’s probability of obtaining a passing score on the NC Algebra I End-of-Course exam. These predicted EVAAS probabilities determine recommended course placement in grades 6 through 8. For example, 8th grade students with a 0.70 or higher probability are recommended for Algebra I. Those students who are not recommended for advanced mathematics or Algebra I are recommended for typical grade-level mathematics courses.

Using student-level administrative data from WCPSS, we utilize a regression-discontinuity (RD) design to investigate how exposure to advanced mathematics and early algebra course-taking impact students’ performance on the state-mandated end-of-grade mathematics examinations as well. Our analyses yield evidence of a significant, negative impact of assignment to advanced mathematics on student end-of-grade mathematics scores in the first two years of implementation. In particular, students of color and 6th graders seem to bear the majority of the adverse impact. Though the sign and magnitude of the effects are relatively stable, the statistical significance differs somewhat by choice of bandwidth. Results from our first-stage analysis indicate strong adherence to the policy’s rule for assigning students to these advanced courses, and we find no evidence that the effects are heterogeneous by gender or race. These findings are consistent with earlier work from Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2011) and Nomi (2012) who also find a negative impact of similar policies. Further analyses will investigate additional outcomes, and investigate potential mechanisms for the negative impact of the policy, such as teacher quality and classroom peer effects, at the margin of assignment.