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Given past research and present COVID learning gaps, district leaders may want to evaluate current middle school math acceleration programs

4 reasons to rethink middle school math acceleration practices

Given past research and present COVID learning gaps, district leaders may want to evaluate current middle school math acceleration programs

As the pandemic continues to impact another school year, a lot of focus has been on “accelerating learning,” which is about maintaining on-grade level instruction or infusing pre-requisite skills in the instruction so students can access on-grade level instruction.

There is another way the term “acceleration” can be used in math, however, and that pertains to moving students beyond grade-level instruction. Sometimes 5th grade students are accelerated into 7th grade math, or 8th grade students are accelerated into Algebra 1.

Research shows this is not optimal for many students and is oftentimes detrimental when students are inappropriately accelerated. Given this research, as well as the effects of the pandemic, the current practices of this acceleration need to be re-examined as some students may have gaps in learning which will be exacerbated through an aggressive acceleration program.

In the past, it was common practice for students to “skip” grades, because there was redundancy in the middle school standards. With College- and Career-Ready standards, the learning builds. Every grade has new content and does not re-teach content from the previous grade, but adds to it. If something is skipped, that initial chance of learning is lost.

Re-thinking acceleration practices will include creating coherent pathways that maintain the entire breadth and depth of K-8 mathematics learning. Below are four steps to determine if – and how – your district should rethink its middle school math acceleration practices.

Step 1. Bring together an advisory group that includes representation from key stakeholders, including middle school math teachers and principals, high school math teachers and principals, elementary and middle school gifted teachers, high school counselors, and parent/family members or a family liaison.

This is not just a middle school problem; it is a K-12 problem that requires a systems-thinking solution involving the school and the community. Having all stakeholders represented ensures everyone understands the data, the research, and the implications of maintaining status quo. It also can generate solutions that will work for the community.

Step 2. Gather information for as many years as possible for students who have participated in middle school acceleration courses in your district. This should cover, but not be limited to:

  • What does student data from online assessments indicate about students’ level of proficiency?
  • Are students in the accelerated middle school program taking accelerated courses in high school?
  • Do they take four years of math in high school?
  • What percentage of students is repeating at least one mathematics course in high school?
  • What percentage of students are taking Calculus I in high school?

The advisory group should then look at and analyze longitudinal data for trends. If a significant percentage of students are repeating courses, not taking four years of math in high school, or falling off this track, it is time to rethink acceleration practices.

Step 3. Based on the data, the advisory group should design pathways that offer desirable choices to stakeholders: parents, teachers, administrators, and most of all, students.

The group should also create placement criteria making selection more objective. This could include changing the name of an “honors” course to a name that more accurately describes the nature of the course. For example, in a course called “Math 7 Plus,” students would be expected to do all the Grade 7 standards plus a significant amount of Grade 8 standards.

Step 4. Create a multiyear rollout plan, including a communication plan to all stakeholders. Take the following questions into consideration as you create this plan:

  • Who are the stakeholders who should be included in receiving this information? Are there any program leaders who need to be included?
  • When and how will you share the data with stakeholders (e.g., principals, teachers, and parents)?
  • What is the best way to display the information?
  • What research will help you share information with stakeholders?

Before the pandemic’s effects on learning, research showed aggressive acceleration practices that compromised K-8 mathematics were not successful for most students. Now is the time to re-think acceleration courses, consider offering high school options, and make meaningful changes to placement criteria to create a coherent, successful math program for ALL students.

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