To repeat, or not to repeat? California algebra study creates commotion

I received a lot of reaction on Twitter to my Dec. 15 column, “California study finds harm for some in repeating algebra, questions whether it benefits anyone,” and would like to respond.

The published study that I was analyzing highlighted the fact that the average student who had repeated algebra improved his grades and test scores. It would seem that this study is evidence that repeating algebra works, and therefore that my headline (“California study finds harm for some in repeating algebra, questions whether it benefits anyone”) and story are flat wrong.

But during my reporting, I interviewed the lead author, Anthony Fong. When I asked him why he thought the weaker students were making gains by taking the same algebra course again, the author alerted me to how small the gains were. These kids are still getting D’s, and still failing to score as “proficient” on the state’s end-of-year exam.

The study states this:

“74.1 percent of the students passed algebra I with an average grade of ‘D-‘ or better when they attempted Algebra I for the second time. More than a third of repeaters received grades that averaged between an “F” and a “D,” and more than half scored either “below basic” or “far below basic” on the algebra I CST in their second attempt.”

Table 2 on page 7 of the study further spells out how slight the improvements were.

To my mind, these gains were so small that it hardly seemed students were benefiting from taking the same Algebra I class again. Certainly, they did not master algebra. Reasonable people can disagree with me, and say that any improvement in grades and test scores, no matter how small, constitutes a benefit.

Data is often in the eye of the beholder. And this is a good example of data analysis that can be used differently on different sides of an argument.

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON December 17, 2014

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