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No Clear Path to Mathematics Learning in California

New Research Examines Math Course-taking Patterns from Middle to High School

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—November 30, 2012—New research examining the course-taking patterns of some 24,000 students in 24 California unified school districts finds that students already doing well in mathematics in the 7th grade are more likely to take advanced math courses in high school and achieve proficiency on the California Standards Test (CST) in algebra. But for the many students who struggle with math in grade 7, there is no clear path to learning and achievement in this critical content area.

Conducted by a team of researchers at WestEd and SRI International and released today by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, the research makes clear that doing well in grade 7 mathematics is predictive of enrollment in more advanced math classes in high school.  More than half (56%) of students earning “B” or above in 7th grade math enrolled in geometry in 9th grade. Conversely just 16 percent of students scoring "C" or "D" enrolled in geometry in 9th grade. The trend holds true through more advanced high school courses.
Additionally, the majority of students who achieve proficiency on the CST in algebra 1 are those who already have strong math skills and are on an “accelerated math track.” (Algebra in grade 8, geometry in grade 9, and algebra 2 in grade 10.) Of the 34 percent of students who achieve proficiency on the algebra 1 CST, almost three quarters of them were on this accelerated track.
“These results provide powerful evidence that school systems are struggling to successfully teach, or re-teach, mathematics to students who are not already performing well in math by the time they reach middle school,” says Neal Finkelstein, Senior Research Scientist at WestEd and lead researcher on this study.  “The data make it very clear that the struggle to successfully teach math starts before and continues after the middle grades.”
For those students not on an accelerated track, the path to successful learning in mathematics is not clear. The study analyzed student course-taking patterns in math from grade 7 through high school and identified approximately 2,000 different math course patterns. Among students not on the accelerated math track, the study found far more complex course sequences. And these students commonly repeated math courses yet rarely attained proficiency on the CST for the course they were being asked to repeat. For students who repeated algebra 1 in grade 9, the grade-9 algebra 1 CST proficiency rate was 21 percent. Among students who repeated algebra 1 in grade 10, the grade-10 algebra 1 CST proficiency rate was just 9 percent.
“Many students repeat algebra, but few repeaters achieve proficiency on their second attempt,” added Finkelstein. “Repeating algebra is generally not an effective strategy for helping students progress in secondary mathematics.”
The research team also found that school districts are keenly aware of poor student performance in mathematics, but less aware of the course-taking patterns and their implications for student learning.  School districts also say they feel great urgency to improve algebra outcomes.
“California’s schools are striving, but struggling, to help more students learn the math they need for entry into college and career success, says Holly Jacobson, Director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd.  “What we are doing now is not working for many kids. We urge school district leaders and state policy makers to consider the implications of these findings and act to strengthen learning opportunities in mathematics for California’s students.”
The study suggests that replication of similar research strategies used for this study, applied at the district level, can provide local educators with actionable data to inform conversations about how to strengthen math instruction for students. In undertaking this kind of analysis, districts should also consider ways to strengthen elementary math so students start 7th grade with a solid math foundation.  Districts should also develop systems that support careful review of student readiness for algebra as an integral part of making placement decisions and should develop and offer appropriate instructional supports. Policies encouraging repetition of algebra courses should be examined for their impact on student learning and cost effectiveness.
Study authors suggest that state policymakers revisit policies encouraging completion of algebra 1 by grade 8 and take advantage of implementation of the Common Core State Standards to look carefully at the ways districts and schools can strengthen student progress in mathematics. Policymakers should also act to strengthen the supply of qualified math teachers in California.
College Bound in Middle School and High School? How Math Course Sequences Matter examines student preparation in mathematics and science in California. The study reviewed a comprehensive set of grade-7 to grade 12 transcript data for a group of 24,279 students from 24 school districts in California deemed representative of the state in general.  The dataset used in this study was compiled in cooperation with the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS). The study also included follow-up conversations with three school districts in California whose data were analyzed collectively as part of the state sample, but were also analyzed for the individual district. The research was commissioned by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd and conducted by at team of researchers at WestEd and SRI International. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Noyce Foundation provided funding for the research.
The study, including an executive summary and listing of recommendations for educators and policymakers can be found at