Accelerating average math students

iStock_000016075406XSmallCompared to countries whose students outperform ours on international math assessment, U.S. curriculums require fewer and less challenging math courses. Math students in the U.S. also spend more time on review and less time on new material that students in other countries.

Researchers DeWayne A. Mason, University of California-Riverside, Darline D. Schroeter, Jennings (Missouri) Junior High School; Karent Washington, Jenning (Missouri) High School; and Ronald K. Combs, University of Missouri/Columbia, conducted a study to determine the effects a more challenging curriculum might have on the math achievement of average eighth-grade students.

Sixty percent of the children at Jennings Junior High School are minority students, and 42 percent are classified as low-income on the basis of their eligibility for reduced cost lunches. This study was carried out as part of a school-wide improvement program intended to implement higher expectations and a more challenging curriculum. In this study, average-achieving math students (those performing between the 35th and 60th percentiles on a comprehensive achievement test) were divided in two groups.

Half of students placed in pre-algebra

Half were placed in pre-algebra, while the other half remained in general eighth-grade math classes. Normally only eighth graders who perform above the 60th percentile on both a standardized test and an algebra-readiness test, and who are recommended by their seventh grade math teacher are allowed to take pre-algebra. Prior to this study, only about 30 percent of the eighth graders qualified for pre-algebra. For this study, however, 34 average achieving students were placed in pre-algebra classes with above-average students.

In addition to higher-level math content, these classes incorporated active teaching techniques aimed at ensuring involvement and understanding through controlled practice, homework, and maintenance reviews. Teachers communicated consistently high expectations for all pre-algebra students and modeled problem-solving techniques recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Working in groups, students created problems, then discussed and tried various methods to solve them.

On computation and problem-solving subtests of a comprehensive math assessment test, average students in pre-algebra classes equalled the performance of average students in the general math classes. However, on the concepts subtest, average students in pre-algebra outperformed average general math students.

On a teacher-designed comprehensive objectives test that more accurately measured mastery of the pre-algebra curriculum used in this study, the average students’ mean score (77.77) was significantly lower than the high achievers’ mean score (85.39). However, 40 percent of the average students scored as high as or higher than 19 percent of high achievers, and 17 percent scored as high as or higher than almost half of the high achievers.

Pre-algebra students enroll in advanced classes in high school

Most importantly, those average students who took pre-algebra in eighth grade continued in high school to enroll in more advanced math classes and continued to achieve significantly higher grades than did their classmates who had taken general eighth-grade math. The study found no significant difference between the performance of classes with high achievers only and classes that included average students.

This study was conducted in a single school with only three eighth-grade pre-algebra classes, and teachers were aware of the average students who were added to their classes. Also, the study was conducted within the context of an overall school-improvement program aimed at increasing student achievement. For these reasons, other factors may have influenced the performance of these average students in pre-algebra classes. Despite these qualifications, the researchers believe their findings indicate that in poorer, urban schools, many more students are probably capable of taking more advanced math courses in eighth grade. Furthermore, they believe that taking such courses improves their performance in high school math. They recommend that schools reevaluate the basis on which they judge eligibility for advanced math classes.

“Assigning Average-Achieving Eighth Graders to Advanced Mathematics Classes in an Urban Junior High” The Elementary School Journal, May 1992, Volume 92, Number 5, pp. 587-599.

Published in ERN November/December 1992 Volume 5 Number 5

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