A middle school that eliminated tracked math classes and adopted an accelerated math program for all students achieved substantial gains in overall math achievement. South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre School District/New York, took five years to plan and implement an accelerated math curriculum for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Initially, some math teachers and parents expressed concern about its effect on high achievers.
District administrators presented data showing that accelerated programs had positive effects for all students, including high achievers. Evaluation of this reform used longitudinal student achievement data from six groups of students: the last three sixth-grade classes that did not receive universal math acceleration and the first three sixth-grade classes that did. Students were followed for seven years, through the end of high school
Starting in 1995, all students entering the South Side Middle School took accelerated math in heterogeneously grouped classes to prepare them to take the eighth-grade algebra-based New York Regents exam. On average, middle schools in New York State provide this accelerated instruction to 20 percent of their students. Superintendent William Johnson and Assistant Principal Delia Garrity believed all middle school students would benefit from such instruction.
A multi-year plan was developed to eliminate tracking. Previously, the school had successfully dismantled tracking in English and social studies classes. To prepare for universal math acceleration, the district gradually increased enrollment in accelerated math classes. Teachers worked together to revise and condense the regular sixth and seventh grade math curriculum, eliminating redundancies and streamlining content.
The school supported struggling learners in three ways: it instituted special support classes that met every other day in addition to the regular class; it required teachers, as part of their contract, to provide after-school help four out of five days a week; and it offered general resource support such as supplementary materials as teachers requested them.
Minority students show big gains
Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School and Jay P. Heubert and Henry M. Levin, Columbia University, studied and reported on the effects of acceleration for students at all achievement levels, for minority students and for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Evaluation compared students’ high-school achievement against their 5th-grade stanine score on the Math Concepts subtest of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. By every measure, students benefited from studying accelerated math in heterogeneously grouped classes.
There was a statistically significant increase in the percentages of students taking courses beyond algebra 2. Among students completing trigonometry, the rate of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds increased from 32 to 67%; and minority students increased from 46 to 67%. The percentage of low achievers completing trigonometry increased from 38 to 53%, average achievers from 81 to 91% and high achievers from 89 to 99%.
The numbers of students taking calculus and AP calculus courses also rose. High standards did not discourage low achievers. The acceleration helped close the achievement gap associated with poor and minority students.
These educators assert that heterogeneous grouping does not impair the learning of high achievers if the top-track curriculum is not watered down to make it accessible to a broader range of students. Following middle school acceleration, the math achievement of these students remained high.
A comparison of high achievers before and after universal acceleration reveals that their mean scores on the eighth-grade regents exam were statistically indistinguishable and that their scores on the AP calculus exams were significantly higher after attending heterogeneous classes. Therefore, high achievers do better and more students become high achievers. As long as the curriculum is rigorous, heterogeneous math classes can benefit all students.
These researchers point out that although nearly all Japanese students study algebra in eighth grade, fewer than 25% of all U.S. students do, and the percentages for minority students are less than half that. Burris et al. believe that this is partly due to faulty assumptions about the effect of heterogeneous classes on high achievers and the proportion of students who can reach high achievement. In this study, the inclusion of all students did not undermine the performance of high achievers, and all students had significant benefits.
“Math Acceleration for All”, Educational Leadership, Volume 61, Number 5, February 2004, pp. 68-71.
Published in ERN April 2004 Volume 17 Number 4