5 school traits linked with higher student performance in 8th grade algebra

iStock_000016075406XSmallGrade 8 algebra is a reach for many middle school students.  But why are some schools more successful at helping students learn more advanced math at an earlier age? What schoolwide policies and practices might account for the difference in performance?

A new study of 303 California middle schools identifies 5 policies and practices associated with schools whose students performed better in math in the California state standardized assessment.The report was published by the nonprofit organization EdSource. (Improving Middle Grades Math Performance, A closer look at district and school policies and practices, course placements, and student outcomes in California.)

The study is based on a follow-up analysis of survey responses from 303 middle school principals, 1,857 math teachers in grades 6-8 and 152 district superintendents and 5 charter management organizations (CMO).

In an earlier study published last year by EdSource, (Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better) findings were reported across 10 domains of middle school instruction and management(e.g. positive, safe, engaging environment, school organization of time and instruction, etc).  This follow-up study looks specifically at policies and practices associated with higher student math performance on the California Standards Test (CST).

To better control for socioeconomic factors, researchers divided the schools into 2 bands—those that served socioeconomically disadvantaged students, Hispanic, English learners and students whose parents had not gone to college  (144 schools) and those whose students were white and/or whose parents had completed some college (159 schools).  Each socioeconomic band included both lower- and higher-performing schools.

The 5 characteristics below were identified by assessing the levels of agreement in the survey  responses of principals, superintendents and math teachers. The surveys made statements on middle school instruction and management (447 items for principals, 313 items for teachers, 187 for superintendents). Staff at higher-performing schools agreed more strongly and reported a greater intensity of implementation on the following 5 themes:

The school aligns instruction with state academic content standards

Staff at higher performing schools agreed more strongly with statements about the school’s alignment with California’s academic content standards and with statements about select key standards being a focus for instruction.  The school’s use of select key standards was associated with higher achievement for 8th graders on both the General Mathematics CST and the Algebra 1 CST.  Teacher reports of more extensive collaboration to break down state standards was also associated with higher outcomes in Algebra 1.

Measurable goals are set for student achievement

A school’s focus on measurable student achievement goals were another theme among the practices and policies that differentiated higher from lower school-level math performance in grade 8. Students in schools where educators were in stronger agreement with statements about the emphasis on measurable goals across grade levels and subject areas tended to have higher achievement on both the General Mathematics CST and the Algebra I CST. Students also had higher achievement in schools where measurable goals were used to  increase the number of students who would be able to succeed in Algebra I and could score proficient or higher on the Algebra I CST.

School has a strong future orientation toward high school

Students tended to have higher outcomes in Algebra I if they attended schools where math teachers reported that curriculum and instruction were designed to prepare students for a rigorous high school curriculum.  Those schools were oriented towards helping students leave the middle grades ready to begin taking courses required for University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU).  Staff also agreed more strongly with statements that the school was focused on getting students to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

Student assessment data is reviewed and used in decision making

Schools where the principal reported meeting more frequently with teachers, individually, by grade level, by department or on a school-wide basis, to review CST results (including results for student subgroups) tended to have higher achievement on the General Mathematics CST.

In addition, students in schools where math teachers reported more extensive collaboration among teachers to analyze student data for the purpose of identifying effective instructional practices tended to have higher achievement on the General Mathematics CST.

Finally, schools where math teachers reported that students’ CST scores are considered more in student placements in grade 7 and 8 general math classes tended to have higher achievement on the test.

School and district work together to identify and address students’ instructional needs

The final area of practice and policy that differentiated higher from lower school-level math performance in grade 8 in Algebra I CST related to how much the district and school worked together to identify and address students’ different instructional needs. Schools where the principal agreed more strongly that the district prioritizes early identification of students who are 2 or more years behind grade level and need academic support, tended to have higher school-level Algebra I achievement.

But another facet of this theme is seen in superintendents’ responses to statements about middle schools’ autonomy in diagnosing student needs. Schools with superintendents who reported that middle schools are allowed to determine the need for diagnostic assessments, to develop their own standards-aligned diagnostic assessments and do their own analysis of student results also tended to have higher outcomes in Algebra I.

“Improving Middle Grades Math Performance, A closer look at district and school policies and practices, course placements, and student outcomes in California,” by Trish Williams, et al., Mountain View, CA, EdSource. February 2011.

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