Accelerated Math: Entrance Rates, Success Rates, and College Readiness

Straight A’s — strong standardized test scores — raving teacher recommendations.  Whether this is a dream or a reality, most would agree that good grades, standardized test scores, and teacher evaluations indicate that a student has successfully learned the required curriculum.  As a nation, we judge the success of the school, student, and teacher by considering each of these factors.  We assume that strong performance on each of these evaluations indicates success, and poor performance indicates “need for improvement.”  

Students on a single accelerated math track take Algebra I in 8th grade.  Statewide, only 30% of all 8th graders are enrolled in Algebra I. Thirty-five NJ school districts have made Algebra I in 8th grade their standard math path. In these 35 districts, more than 60% of all 8th graders are enrolled in Algebra I.  With the exception of a few small districts (Berkeley Heights, Mount Olive, Fair Haven, Cranford, and West-Windsor Plainsboro), 8th grade Algebra for “all” has been fairly unsuccessful — more than ½ of the students were unable to pass the PARCC Algebra I exam on the first try.  Comparatively, approximately 77% of all students in more selective single accelerated math programs pass the PARCC Algebra I exam on the first try.

Students on a double accelerated math track take Algebra I in 7th grade.  Statewide, 155 public school districts offer a double accelerated math option.  These students are able to take AP Calculus A/B in their junior year followed by AP Calculus B/C in their senior year.  Only 4% of all students across the state participate in a double accelerated math program. Only 37 districts offered this option to more than 33 students.   Qualification requirements are rigid, and students must demonstrate mastery of 7th and 8th grade content before they complete 6th grade. Due to the extremely selective nature of these programs, 97% of these students pass the PARCC Algebra 1 exam on the first try.
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Fifteen school districts reported that they had at least one student radically accelerated (enrolled in Algebra I before 7th grade).  No NJ district reported 10 or more students enrolled in Algebra 1 in 7th grade. In total, 62 NJ students took and passed the PARCC Algebra 1 exam before completing 6th grade.  Radical acceleration is not a standard course option; decisions regarding acceleration beyond offerings formally provided by your local school district require careful consideration, rigorous testing, and the input of the student, faculty, and parents.  Parents and educators must carefully evaluate not only the child’s math aptitude and ability but the child’s interests, personality, and social and emotional needs.

Algebra 1 (and usually Algebra 2) is required for graduation across the country (excluding Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, and Nevada which allow each district to set its own graduation requirements).  Within these states, most districts within these states require Algebra I for graduation. As such, most students with high school diplomas have completed Algebra by either district or state standards. Students enrolled in Accelerated Math programs are far more likely to pass high school standardized tests for Algebra, enroll in college, and complete college.

Success in accelerated math programs is dependent upon adequate preparation and grit; accelerated math tracks are not suitable for all students. Most schools place students into accelerated math by testing students on above grade level material.  In order to qualify, students must demonstrate that they have mastered material not yet covered in school. As such, most of the students admitted into these programs have had outside assistance or tutoring.  Overall, 39% of US students attend privately paid for tutoring in mathematics.  21% of all US elementary students are enrolled in privately paid for mathematics tutoring.  While some students require tutoring to keep up with the pace of a class, high ability (gifted) students often use tutoring to ensure placement in faster paced math tracks.  These placements ensure class placement with like-minded peers, open opportunities for advanced classes in high school, and allow students to start college with necessary prerequisites.

Why must so many students repeat PreAlgebra and Algebra in college
Since colleges typically require a high school diploma or equivalency for admission purposes, students entering college have theoretically “already completed” Algebra.  Despite this, approximately 60% of college freshman across the United States are assessed as unprepared for college-level work, most often in mathematics (Grubb et al., 2011).  As a result, these students must enroll in remedial math classes that cover elementary and middle school level math topics before they can enroll in Algebra.  Of the students enrolled in remedial math programs, only 38% pass leaving 62% of students with some college without even basic pre-algebra knowledge.  
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Students who fail to complete remedial math programs are among the most likely to drop out and, in many cases, are unable to graduate regardless of intent.  According to a 2015 report by the Mathematical Association of America, only about 50% of students pass college Algebra each year.  ​
K – 12 math outcomes in the United States grow weaker each year.  On a whole, our high school graduates have weaker learning outcomes than they did 20 to 30 years ago.  Internationally, the United States ones reigned atop other countries as a leader in education, but recent PISA results show that the US is falling behind.  Increased emphasis on standardized testing means that students spend an average of 25 hours per year taking standardized tests with testing consuming up to 1.5 months in some districts.  Moreover, approximately 40 minutes to an hour of each day is spent on intentional test preparation and test taking “strategies” such as guess and check methodologies, strategies that manipulate scoring systems, and “understanding” the test itself.  The remainder of the curriculum is “standards based” and focuses on the skills necessary to perform “well” on standardized tests rather than actual student learning. A quick glance at a current day math textbook shows that about ¼ of the textbook is dedicated to test prep – practice questions and “tips” on test taking strategies.

Math is the science of patterns; mathematicians study patterns and relationships.  Math is logic.  Math does not require guessing or brute-force methods to “plug-and-chug” multiple choice options.  A rigorous algebra course trains students to think logically and to break down complex problems into discrete manageable steps.   
How do I prepare my child for Accelerated Math

If you believe your child will benefit from accelerated math, there are two things to consider:  your school’s accelerated math policy and your child’s readiness for accelerated math.  Each school district has its own process to select students for accelerated math.  We’ve compiled a list of accelerated math policies in NJ here.  Depending upon the district, elementary students may be selected for accelerated math in 4th, 5th, or 6th grade.  The typical selection process consists of several components such as teacher recommendations, standardized test scores, and performance on a math achievement test. The math achievement test typically requires students to demonstrate math skills beyond what has been covered in school.

If your child’s school bases class placement strictly on standardized test scores and teacher recommendations, it’s important for you to ensure your child has a strong foundation before they start an accelerated math program.  Standardized tests merely assess a student’s ability to select the best fit answer out of (typically) four options.  As such, student knowledge is generally grossly overstated by standardized tests.  Accelerated math programs allow students to take Algebra in earlier grades by essentially skipping a year or two of curriculum. Very few programs use a process called curriculum compacting which involves teaching the same material but simply moving through it at a faster rate. 

​Very few parents of elementary students are considering their child’s high school course options; however, tests and grades as early as 4th grade may have a profound impact on a child’s high school and even collegiate career.  Early exposure to advanced math topics is vital for students seeking placement in accelerated math tracks.  For more information on accelerated math tracks, read “Accelerated Math: What Every Parent Should Know.”  

Sources
​Grubb, W.N., Boner, E., Frankel, K., Parker, L., Patterson, D., Gabriner, R.,…Wilson, S. (2011). Understanding the “crisis” in basic skills: Framing the issues in community colleges. Policy Analysis for California Education Working Paper. Retrieved from http://www.edpolicyinca.org/publications/understanding- %E2%80%9Ccrisis%E2%80%9D-basic-skills-framing-issues-community-colleges 
​http://thetamnews.org/features/it-doesnt-add-up-why-does-39-of-our-student-population-pay-for-math-tutoring/ 
 
Regardless, students are shuffled from one grade level to the next without anyone giving much thought as to whether the student has mastered the material.  Class placement is based strictly on age, and schools across the nation are often reluctant to hold students back or “skip students ahead” with one exception – accelerated math.  
 
What is Accelerated Math? How successful is it?  

The average student takes Algebra I in 9th grade; however, most districts offer accelerated math options that allow students to take Algebra I in either 7th or 8th grade.

Success in Algebra I is typically determined by performance on standardized tests.  In New Jersey, success in Algebra I is measured by performance on the PARCC Algebra I test.  The PARCC Algebra I test is a common core aligned standardized tests administered on the computer.  NJ students graduating in 2021 and beyond must pass the PARCC Algebra I and English – Language Arts (ELA) grade 10 assessments to graduate.  As such, all students must take Algebra I at some point in their academic career.

Statewide, students on a “standard” math track (Algebra I in 9th grade) tend to perform very poorly on the PARCC Algebra I test with only ¼ of these students passing the PARCC Algebra I test on the first try.  Most of these students must retake the test multiple times, but few of these students ever pass the exam. Beginning in 2021, these students will only be able to earn a high school diploma by filing an appeal through one of the alternative pathways.  
Entrance into accelerated math is limited to students who demonstrate exceptional math achievement.  High ability students with poor or average achievement are typically excluded from these programs due to the knowledge based placement procedures.   Qualification requirements for accelerated math vary by district, but most districts use a combination of test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations.  Students may qualify for either a single or double accelerated track.

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