Tracking is seen by many educators as the most effective and expedient strategy for helping both low- and high-achieving students meet learning goals and standards.
But, a growing body of research suggests that offering all students — not just the best and brightest — an enriched, accelerated curriculum, can result in significant gains in performance and learning for a broad cross-section of students.
Minority students most responsive
This strategy may be particularly effective for teaching math in middle school, conclude the authors of a longitudinal study of almost 1,000 students who attended a suburban Nassau County, Long Island school. The students attended school before or after it transitioned from tracking to a universal accelerated curriculum in 1995. The study shows across-the-board gains, with big gains for the school’s minority population.
“More students took advanced mathematics classes, more students passed such courses along with their associated New York State examinations, and more students completed such courses a year sooner than the average student in New York State,” the researchers conclude. They compared math achievement of six cohorts of students– three that received math instruction in tracked classes for low-, average- and highachieving students (477 students) and three that were exposed to a universal accelerated curriculum (508 students) after 1995.
“What students should know and be able to do in mathematics is a critical ingredient of the standards debate,” write the researchers, Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, NY and Jay Heubert and Henry Levin from Teachers College at Columbia University. “National councils and commissions have agreed that all students should master a more challenging mathematics curriculum.”
Accelerated mathematics in this middle school meant that the usual 6th, 7th and 8th grade curricula would be taught in two years rather than three and that the algebra-based, 9th-grade curricula, Sequential Mathematics I, would be taught in 8th grade.
To measure math achievement of students in this longitudinal study, the researchers analyzed the percentage of students who went on to take advanced mathematics courses in high school.
By 12th grade, 92% of all students in the post-universal-acceleration group had passed Sequential Mathematics III (compared to 83% before the change) and the New York state regents examination, and 85% had passed a course with a precalculus curriculum in high school (compared with 70% before the change), the researchers report.
More minority students advance
The effect of offering a universal accelerated curriculum was especially significant for minority populations. After universal acceleration the percentage of minority students who passed the Sequential Mathematics I regents exam before they entered high school tripled, from 23% to 75%.
“Moreover, two-thirds of African American, Latino and low-SES (socioeconomic status) students in the post-universal-acceleration cohorts successfully completed Sequential Mathematics III, the first advanced mathematics course identified in the literature as being associated with success in college,” the researchers write. Before the change, only 46% of African American and Latino students had done so. As well as analyzing how many students went on to take advanced math in high school, the researchers also wanted to address another question: Did detracking have a negative impact on the performance of high-achieving students?
A major concern of detracking is that it will “hold back” learning and performance of high-achieving students, but the researchers conclude that, based on the scores of high-achieving students on the New York state regents exams before and after the school changed to universal accelerated curriculum, there was no significant difference in scores (93.07 pre-acceleration vs. 91.72 post-acceleration.) As with other students, more high-achieving students took advanced math classes with calculus in high school and scored higher on the tests, the study found.
Again, there was a significant effect for students of color who were initial high achievers, the researchers report. Before the school changed to a universal accelerated curriculum, a little more than half of students of color who were high achievers took advanced math in high school. “After universal acceleration, all high-achieving students of color took and passed both the course and the regents’ examination in the eighth grade,” the researchers write.
To make the transition from tracking in math to a universal accelerated curriculum the school: (a) revised the grades 6-8 curriculum, (b) created support workshops to assist struggling students, (c) established common preparation periods for math teachers, (d) integrated use of calculators, and (e) revised math teachers’ schedules to include four accelerated classes and two workshops.
“The superintendent and the middle school leadership team believed that the combination of (a) heterogeneous grouping, (b) a hightrack curriculum, and (c) mathematics workshops would enable all learners to be successful without reducing the achievement of the most proficient students,” the researchers note. Students were placed in alternate-day workshops, which averaged eight students, based on teacher recommendations or parent requests. Students were allowed to leave depending on their performance in class and their desire for support. About 25% of students took a workshop class during the year.
“Accelerating Mathematics Achievement Using Heterogeneous Grouping” American Educational Research Journal Volume 43, Number 1, Spring 2006 pps. 105-136.
Published in ERN May 2006 Volume 19 Number 5