American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting
Theme: Leveraging Educational Research in a “Post-Truth” Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence
April 5-9, 2019
Title: The Socioemotional Consequences of Accelerated Middle School Mathematics (Paper)
Session: Access to Accelerated Mathematics Course-Taking in Middle School and Beyond
Authors: Thurston Domina, Paul Hanselman; Andres McEachin, Andrew Penner, Emily Penner
Abstract: Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of eighth graders in U.S. public schools enrolled in Algebra or a more advanced mathematics course doubled to 44 percent. This increase was particularly pronounced in California, where 8th grade Algebra enrollment rates peaked at 68 percent in 2013 in the wake of a decades-long policy effort to make Algebra the default mathematics course for 8th graders. The push to enroll more middle-schoolers in accelerated courses is predicated on the assumption that students learn more when they are exposed to more academically advanced curricula. However, the evidence in support of that assumption is mixed. Early accelerated course placements boost students’ odds of reaching advanced courses later in high school (Dougherty, Goodman, Hill, Litke, & Page, 2017; McEachin, Domina, & Penner, 2018) and the existing literature describes instances in which accelerated courses have unequivocal positive effects on student achievement (Cortes, Goodman & Nomi, 2015; Heppen, 2012). However, recent quasi-experimental evaluations suggest that the effects of early Algebra vary considerably across schools (McEachin, Domina, & Penner, 2018) and early Algebra when implemented at scale may have unintended negative effects on students mathematics achievement (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2015; Domina et al., 2015; Dougherty, Goodman, Hill, Litke, & Page, 2017).
One reason for mixed results may be that analyses of effects of course placements on academic outcomes neglect more complex consequences of course placement for student experience. We hypothesize facing more challenging content and interacting with higher achieving peers, has important cross-cutting effects on students’ socioemotional development. In this paper, therefore, we estimate the effects of enrolling in accelerated 8th grade mathematics courses on students’ growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. Our analyses take advantage of unique data resources made available by the CORE Districts, a group of California local education agencies, representing over one million students, that measure student socioemotional development each spring as a part of their locally-developed school accountability system (CORE Districts, 2016; see also West, Buckley, Krachman, & Bookman, 2018 for more information on the CORE districts, their accountability system, and the socioemotional measures they deploy).
Two CORE districts, Fresno and Long Beach Unified, have implemented a policy in which students who score proficient on their prior year mathematics achievement are to be placed into accelerated mathematics courses during 8th grade year (Marsh, Bush-Mecenas, & Hough, 2017). Prior analyses indicate that several additional schools in the CORE districts also use a threshold on students’ prior year mathematics test scores to place students into middle school mathematics courses (McEachin, Domina, & Penner, 2018). These threshold-based course assignments allow us to estimate the effects of accelerated course assignment via regression discontinuity, comparing outcomes for students just above the accelerated course placement threshold with those of their peers who scored just below the threshold. Assuming that observed and unobserved student characteristics vary continuously across the placement threshold, this RD design provides causal inferences that are “as good as random assignment” (Lee & Lemieux, 2010; Imbens & Lemieux, 2008; Reardon & Robinson, 2012).