Why Districts Should Re-evaluate Their Middle School Math Acceleration Programs

Categories: Data Culture, Instruction, Leadership

In this post, "acceleration" is used to describe the compression or abbreviation of students’ pathways to accessing Algebra I in middle school. In education, the term acceleration is also used to describe "instructional strategies that can help all students grapple with grade-appropriate content," (TNTP) which Curriculum Associates supports but is not discussed here.

In 2017, Oregon’s Springfield Public Schools (SPS) decided it was time to rethink its middle school math acceleration practices. Like many districts across the nation, Springfield offered math acceleration options in middle school to enable students to take high school courses in Grade 8 followed by college-level math courses (e.g., AP Calculus (AB)) in high school.

After SPS heard a Curriculum Associates presentation that prompted the district to examine the data related to its middle school math acceleration, what district leaders saw troubled them. They found that:

  • 44 percent of students who had been accelerated were repeating Algebra I and Geometry.
  • Rather than enrolling in AP Calculus I or II, a higher percentage of students who completed accelerated pacing in middle school were choosing to not take any math course in their junior or senior years.
  • An accelerated course that compressed Grades 6–8 content into one year was only available at one of the district’s four middle schools, raising questions of equity. (The other three middle schools had been accelerating students via “skipping” a grade level to get to Algebra I in Grade 8.)

Research shows that students with solid middle school math foundations who don’t take Algebra I until Grade 9 have better math learning experiences than students who take Algebra I in Grade 8. Indeed, accelerated students often need to repeat math courses—defeating the primary purpose of acceleration.

SPS realized that by accelerating students who were once mathematically strong, it was both hindering students’ success in high school and college mathematics and negatively affecting their attitudes toward mathematics overall.

Learn more about SPS’s evaluation of its middle school math acceleration program in Rethinking Middle School Math Acceleration.

Download the Whitepaper

Examining Middle School Math Acceleration Programs

In a study of mathematics textbooks in the 1980s, it was estimated that by Grade 8, only about 30 percent of the material contained new content (Flanders, 1987). This repetition led schools and districts to often accelerate stronger math students by allowing them to skip or combine grade-level math content. The large amount of content repetition also led to local and state policies, which emphasized “completing Algebra I in Grade 8 and reaching AP Calculus in the final year of high school.”

However, the implementation of new standards in 2010 made math curricula less repetitive and more successive. The newer college- and career-ready standards are built on progressions of learning, which means that instruction based on the standards at one grade level is not repeated in another grade level. With the new standards, accelerated students are no longer skipping over known material but are instead being asked to learn new content at a faster pace. This acceleration can demoralize students, lead to negative attitudes about mathematics, and decrease the number of math courses students take in high school.

Research found that:

  • Students who take no math course at all in their senior year or who repeat lower-level courses are at risk for needing remedial math in college (NCTM, 2018).
  • As more students were placed into Algebra I courses in Grade 7 or 8, the pass rates of Algebra I declined, and the students were significantly less likely to pass Geometry and Algebra II (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2012).
  • In a large California study, 44 percent of Grade 8 students who took traditional Algebra I had to repeat it with mixed improvement results among groups (Fong, Jaquet, & Finkelstein, 2014).
  • In “College Bound in Middle School & High School?: How Math Course Sequences Matter,” researchers found that only a small percentage of the students who took Algebra I a second time reached proficiency on the California Standards Test and concluded, “When students take Algebra I (that is, in which grade) is less important than whether students are ready to take it” (Finkelstein, Fong, Huang, Tiffany-Morales, & Shields, 2012).
Middle school math acceleration programs can inadvertently cause negative attitudes about math and fewer students taking math courses in high school, which can lead to students needing remedial math in college.

Changing Middle School Math Acceleration Practices

The district leadership at SPS created an Acceleration Advisory team and used the guide for Analyzing and Rethinking Acceleration Practices (see the whitepaper) to take steps in revising their middle school math acceleration program. After thoroughly reviewing the data, speaking with stakeholders, and reviewing research, the Acceleration Advisory team made five key decisions.

1. Eliminate the combined course that compressed standards from Grades 6–8.

SPS Principal Brandi Stark was able to show the SPS community that only 50 percent of students who participated in the Grades 6–8 combined course stayed on an accelerated math track in middle school, and only a small percentage of these same students went on to reach higher-level math courses in high school.

2. Eliminate acceleration in Grades K—5, including Talented and Gifted (TAG) students—except in very rare situations.

A TAG representative worked with SPS’s elementary teachers to help them deepen students’ understanding of grade-level content rather than move students into content that would be taught in the next grade level.

3. Develop middle school math courses that do not skip or compress standards.

In 2019–2020, the SPS Acceleration Advisory team created a course of study that included all of the standards and still allowed students to take Algebra I in middle school.

4. Use Diagnostic data and state assessment results to determine which students belong in accelerated courses.

Instead of relying solely on teacher recommendations, the Acceleration Advisory team used i-Ready Diagnostic data, Smarter Balanced test results, and the students’ willingness to do advanced work to identify who should enroll in the accelerated courses.

5. Limit the number of students enrolled in accelerated courses.

Enrollment in accelerated courses was limited to only 10–15 percent of students.

Moving Forward

Springfield educators and students began seeing the benefits of their revised acceleration program not long after the Acceleration Advisory team began implementing new practices. Within two years, all four middle schools were using the same data-driven criteria to determine which students to accelerate. By the 2020–2021 school year, all four middle schools had the same acceleration options. SPS math students now have a higher course-completion rate than with previous acceleration practices.

The SPS Acceleration Advisory team’s future work will include addressing the new high school standards, de-tracking high school courses, and looking at different acceleration options that will include college- and career-focused pathways, such as quantitative math, statistical math, and calculus.

Middle schoolers can love math! Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Classroom Mathematics, a core math curriculum, encourages students to become strong, independent thinkers through discourse-centered routines.

Learn How i-Ready Classroom Mathematics Helps Students Thrive
Locate Your Representative