Background/Context: Across the United States, secondary school curricula are intensifying as a growing proportion of students enroll in high-level academic math courses. In many districts, this intensification process occurs as early as eighth grade, where schools are effectively constraining their mathematics curricula by restricting course offerings and placing more students into Algebra I. This paper provides a quantitative single-case research study of policy-driven curricular intensification in one California school district.
Research Questions: (1a) What effect did 8th eighth grade curricular intensification have on mathematics course enrollment patterns in Towering Pines Unified schools? (2b) How did the distribution of prior achievement in Towering Pines math classrooms change as the district constrained the curriculum by universalizing 8th eighth grade Algebra? (3c) Did 8th eighth grade curricular intensification improve students’ mathematics achievement?
Setting: Towering Pines is an immigrant enclave in the inner-ring suburbs of a major metropolitan area. The district’s 10 middle schools together enroll approximately 4,000 eighth graders each year. The districts’ students are ethnically diverse and largely economically disadvantaged. The study draws upon administrative data describing 8th eighth graders in the district in the 2004–20-05 through 2007–20-08 school years.
Intervention/Program/Practice: During the study period, Towering Pines dramatically intensified middle school students’ math curricula: In the 2004–20-05 school year 32% of the district’s 8th eighth graders enrolled in Algebra or a higher- level mathematics course; by the 2007–20-08 school year that proportion had increased to 84%.
Research Design: We use an interrupted time-series design, comparing students’ 8th eighth grade math course enrollments, 10th grade math course enrollments, and 10th grade math test scores across the four cohorts, controlling for demographics and prior achievement.
Findings/Results: We find that students’ odds of taking higher level mathematics courses increased as this district implemented the state’s Algebra mandate. However, even as the district implemented a constrained curriculum strategy, mathematics achievement growth between 6th sixth and 10th grade slowed and the achievement advantages associated with 8th eighth grade Algebra declined.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Our analyses suggest that curricular intensification increased the inclusiveness and decreased the selectivity of the mathematics tracking regime in Towering Pines middle schools. However, the findings suggest that this constrained curriculum strategy may have may have unintended negative consequences for student achievement.