Research on attempts to fix tracking

Open enrollment in high level courses

One approach to reforming tracking is make all higher level courses, including AP courses, open to all students. Researchers who have looked at this approach have found that just opening enrollment does not increase the diversity in higher level courses.

Rowland and Shircliffe (2016) looked at what happened when one high school in Florida switched to open enrollment Advanced Placement courses in an attempt to increase the diversity of their AP classes.   Read more

    Citation: Rowland, M. & Shircliffe, B. (2016). Confronting the “acid test”: Educators’ perspectives on expanding access to advanced placement at a diverse Florida high school. Peabody Journal of Education, 91(3), 404-420.

    Abstract: This study examines educators’ perspectives on accountability mandates designed to expand access to the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) classes to traditionally underserved students at a diverse suburban high school in Florida, Palm Crest High School. Consistent with Elmore (1979), district and site-based administrators focused on the “forward mapping,” of implementation and identified teacher “gatekeeping” as well as parental expectations as chief barriers to opening up AP enrollment. Teachers, however, found implementation problematic—accountability levers had contradictory provisions and overall neglect nonacademic barriers to college access for low-income African American and Hispanic students. The current value-added model of incorporating student exam performance as a key component of teacher evaluations complicates the advocacy associated with increasing low-SES students’ participation in AP classes as educators strive to maintain high pass rates amid open-enrollment policies. We argue for increased support systems to enhance students’ preparedness for taking college-level courses while in high school, leading to increased college attendance and degree completion.

    Methods: Interviews of teachers and administrators at one diverse high school in Florida.

    Key findings: Despite the district’s push for increased diversity in AP classes, between 2009 and 2012 the percentage of Asian and White students who enrolled in AP courses increased significantly and the percentage of Black and Latinx students in those courses increased only slightly. There was a lack of recruitment of diverse students and teacher performance incentives were at odds with the diversity initiative, both of which undermined the drive to expand AP courses.

    Friend and Degen (2007) evaluated an open enrollment system for advanced courses and found that, while overall enrollment increased, enrollment for low income students and students of color did not increase much.   Read more

    Citation: Friend, J. & Degen, E. (2007). Middle-level reform: The introduction of advanced English and science courses. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18(2), 246-276

    Abstract: Seven middle-level schools in a large suburban district created an open enrollment system for advanced English and science courses. The advanced courses provided students with an opportunity to learn through the use of primary sources, high-level literature, and a variety of projects. A vertical teaming process in each middle–high school attendance area was instrumental in promoting teacher collaboration and acceptance of a Pre-AP philosophy intended to expand student access to advanced courses. The vertical teams included representative teachers of advanced courses from across grade levels. The adopted philosophy focused on connecting a wider base of students to the benefits of a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum. Although all students were allowed to enter advanced courses without prerequisite criteria and teachers were encouraged to work across vertical teams to provide scaffolding to prepare students for advanced work, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were still significantly less likely to enroll in advanced coursework. Qualitative data underscored the importance of positive teacher attitudes in implementing an open enrollment policy. Teachers were encouraged by the success they experienced in teaching students who would have been excluded from a more selective program. Unfortunately, equity of opportunity in open enrollment policies may not be sufficient to encourage greater participation of minority and low socioeconomic status students in academically advanced programs. Educators must maintain high expectations for all students, provide equitable opportunities for all students to engage in curricula that exceed the minimum standards for academic content areas, and provide support for students to be successful in these courses.

    Methods: Program evaluation of one mid-Western school district

    Key findings: The district switched to open enrollment and saw a large increase in higher level course enrollment overall, but there was not a large increase in enrollment by low income students and students of color.

    Yonezawa, Wells, and Serna (2002) investigated what happened at six mixed race high schools that were attempting to diversify their high level courses.  Read more

    Citation: Yonezawa, S., Wells, A., & Serna, I. (2002). Choosing tracks: “Freedom of choice” in detracking schools. American Educational Research Journal, 39(1), 37-67.

    Abstract: In this article, we discuss how and why educators’ attempts at detracking by providing students and parents with greater ‘freedom of choice” in track placement often result in little movement of low- and middle-track students into high-track classes. Using data from six racially mixed high schools undergoing detracking reform, the authors contend that these schools’ low- and middle-track students, most of whom were African American and Latino, resisted entering high-track classes because the relationship between their places in the tracking hierarchy and their evolving identities and ideologies shaped the way such options were presented to and perceived by them. The authors conclude that the hidden institutional barriers within schools, the students’ tracked aspirations, and the desire of students to learn in ‘places of respect” thwarted reformers’ efforts to detrack through the mechanism of choice.

    Methods: Case study of six mixed race high schools undergoing tracking reforms.

    Key findings: Despite the stated policies, several institutional and cultural barriers kept the racial disparities between tracks intact. These included institutional barriers such as how information was disseminatated to parents, how educators responded to students’ requests for higher level courses, and hidden prerequisites. Other challenges included tracked aspirations. Students in the higher level courses felt a sense of entitlement to them and students in the lower tracks often internalized their lower status or were subtly discouraged from moving up by their teachers and administrators. The third challenge was the lack of diversity in the high level courses, both in curriculum and in student demographics. Some students felt a lack of belonging in the higher level courses, and many reported feeling judged in those courses. Students also had concerns about the White centric curriculum in those courses.

    Open enrollment in high level courses with student recruitment

    Some school districts have been able to increase the diversity of their higher level courses by combining open enrollment with active recruitment of Black and Latinx students for those courses.

    Godley, Monroe, and Castma (2015) focused on one English AP teacher in Pittsburgh taught an increasingly diverse class and share statistics on AP changes in the city.  Read more

    Citation: Godley, A., Monroe, T., & Castma, J. (2015). Increasing access to and success in Advanced Placement English in Pittsburgh Public Schools. English Journal, 105(1), 28-34.

    Abstract: This piece describes how an urban school district detracked its AP English program and diversified student enrollment, and how one AP English teacher expanded his instructional strategies to meet the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse learners.

    Methods: This study, co-written with the teacher featured in the article, focuses on the instructional practices in one open access AP English class in Pittsburgh.

    Key findings: While the article focuses on Terry’s instructional practices, it also discusses how Pittsburgh attempted to diversity AP courses by moving to an open enrollment system and focusing on identifying students who might be successful in AP courses. They succeeded in tripling the number of Black students taking one or more AP courses in five years through the combination of open access and active identification of students.

    Raising standards and graduation requirements

    In 2007, officials in Michigan changed the state’s high school standards, requiring that students take more rigorous courses in order to graduate. With the new standards, all students would graduate ready the graduate high school. The following studies investigated the effects and challenges of the new Michigan Merit Curriculum.

    Jacob, Dynarski, Frank, and Schneider (2017) analyzed state level data to determine the effects of the new curriculum on test scores and high school completion. They found a small change in test scores for science only and mixed effects on graduation times.   Read more

    Citation: Jacob, B., Dynarski, S., Frank, K., & Schneider, B. (2017).  Are expectations alone enough? Estimating the effect of a mandatory college-prep curriculum in Michigan. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 39(2), 333-360.

    Abstract: This article examines the impacts of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), a statewide college preparatory curriculum that applies to the high school graduating class of 2011 and later. Our analyses suggest that the higher expectations embodied in the MMC had slight impact on student outcomes. Looking at student performance in the ACT, the only clear evidence of a change in academic performance comes in science. Our best estimates indicate that ACT science scores improved by 0.2 points (or roughly 0.04 SD) as a result of the MMC. Our estimates for high school completion are sensitive to the choice of specification, though some evidence suggests that the MMC reduced graduation for the least prepared students.

    Methods: Examined state level data on student demographics, time of graduation, standardized test scores, and high schools attended using an interrupted time-series analysis.

    Key findings: Overall, standardized test scores did not change significantly pre and post the new standards for most subjects although science scores, especially for the weakest students entering high school did increase slightly. The evidence on graduation times was mixed.

    Bair and Bair (2011) spent four years at one high school in Michigan looking at how the new standards were implemented. They found that teachers were given no support or resources which lead to the watering down of courses and the creation of a new academic track of students who failed a course.     Read more

    Citation: Bair, D. & Bair, M. (2011).  An ethnographic policy analysis of a Michigan high school’s implementation of state-mandated universal college preparatory curricula. Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, 6(1), 14-31

    Abstract: Although many states mandate college preparatory curricula for all high school students, there is no conclusive evidence regarding the benefits of this effort. Furthermore, we know little about how schools interpret and implement such policies. This extended ethnographic case study included a 4 year examination of 1 Michigan high school’s response to a state policy mandating college preparatory curricula for all high school students. Using interviews with 10 administrators and 22 teachers, observations of 13 mathematics and 12 science classes, and various related documents, we examined how these school-based educators made sense of and implemented this policy. Data analysis was guided by Anthony Giddens’ (1984) structuration theory about the recursive relationship between structure and agency. Our findings reveal how administrators and teachers, in responding to the policy, created structures that unintentionally hurt the struggling students they were trying to help. We recommend additional resources to assist those responsible for implementing policy in public schools.

    Methods: An ethnographic study of 13 math and 12 science classrooms at one high school over four years.

    Key findings: To accommodate the new curriculum, administrators detracked classes and created a trimester schedule. Teachers were given no support for the changes nor any new curriculum or materials nor guidance on how to condense their course into a trimester time frame. Over time, courses became increasingly focused on test preparation and moved away from interactive activities. So many students failed the new classes that the school wound up creating a new track of students who needed to retake the courses.

    Bair and Bair (2014) reported more findings from the same high school, focusing on the lack of support for teachers and students in implementing the new standards.  Read more

    Citation: Bair, M. & Bair, D. (2014). Failure, the next generation: Why rigorous standards are not sufficient to improve science learning.  International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 9(5), 1-12.

    Abstract: Although many states in the United States are adopting policies that require all students to complete college-preparatory science classes to graduate from high school, such policies have not always led to improved student outcomes. There is much speculation about the cause of the dismal results, but there is scant research on the processes by which the policies are being implemented at the school level, especially in schools that enroll large numbers of historically non-college-bound students. To address this gap in the literature, we conducted a four-year ethnographic case study of policy implementation at one racially and socioeconomically diverse high school in Michigan. Guided by the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (1984), we gathered and analyzed information from interviews with administrators and science teachers, observations of science classes, and relevant curriculum and policy documents. Our findings reveal the processes and rationales by which a state policy mandating three years of college-preparatory science for all students was implemented at the school. Four years after the policy was implemented, there was little improvement in science outcomes. The main reason for this, we found, was the lack of correspondence between the state policy and local policies developed in response to that state policy.

    Methods: A case study of science classrooms and science teachers at one high school implementing the new standards.

    Key findings: Teachers felt like they were flying by the seat of their pants, that the new state standards for science were disjointed, and that with the new short trimesters they didn’t have enough time. Many students struggled with the new courses and did not receive adequate support which lead to a retracking of the school.

    Implementing Algebra for All 

    If students do not take Algebra I in 8th grade, it is generally impossible for them to take Calculus in high school. Math courses typically build on each, meaning that what students study in 8th grade has an enormous impact on their ability to take college credit math courses years later. Because of this, some states and cities have implemented algebra for all initiatives, requiring that 8th graders take algebra. Like the Michigan Merit Curriculum, researchers have generally found little positive impact from those initiatives often due to a lack of support for teachers and students with the changes.

    Stein, Kaufman, Sherman, and Hillen (2011) reviewed 44 studies on the effects of universal algebra for the 8th graders. They found that, when students received support,  the initiatives lead to a large increase in enrollment by lower income students with only a slight increase in over all course failure rates.    Read more

    Citation:  Stein, M.K., Kaufman, J.H., Sherman, M., & Hillen, A. (2011).  Algebra: A Challenge at the crossroads of policy and practice, 81(4), 453-492.

    Abstract: The authors review what is known about early and universal algebra, includ- ing who is getting access to algebra and student outcomes associated with algebra course taking in general and specifically with universal algebra policies. The findings indicate that increasing numbers of students, some of whom are underprepared, are taking algebra earlier. At the same time, other students with requisite skills are not given access to algebra. Although studies using nationally representative data indicate strong positive outcomes for students who take algebra early, studies conducted only in contexts where all students are mandated to take algebra in eighth or ninth grade provide mixed evidence of positive outcomes, with increased achievement when policies include strong supports for struggling students. The authors conclude with a call for studies that examine the relationship among algebra policies, instruction, and student outcomes to understand the mechanisms by which policies can lead to success for all students.

    Methods: Literature review of studies from 1995 onward. 44 studies were included in the review.

    Key findings: Generally, taking algebra in 8th grade is associated with later taking of higher level math courses in high school, even when student aspirations and demographics are controlled for. Universal algebra policies generally led to large increases in algebra enrollment, especially for lower income students. While failure rates for 8th grade algebra courses did increase, the increase in students who enrolled in algebra and passed it was  larger than the slight increase in failure rates.

    Rickles (2013) used nationally representative data to determine the overall effect of universal algebra policies, generally finding positive effects for the policy.  Read more

    Citation: Rickles, J. (2013).   Examining heterogeneity in the effect of taking algebra in eighth grade. Journal of Educational Research, 106(4), 251-268.

    Abstract: Increased access to algebra was a focal point of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s 2008 report on improving mathematics learning in the United States. Past research found positive effects for early access to algebra, but the focus on average effects may mask important variation across student subgroups. The author addresses whether these positive effects hold up when the analysis is expanded to examine effect heterogeneity. Using a nationally representative sample of eighth-grade students in 1988, the author examined sensitivity of findings to methods for selection bias adjustment, heterogeneity across the propensity to take algebra in Grade 8, and across schools. The findings support past research regarding positive benefits to Grade 8 algebra and are consistent with policies that increase access to algebra in middle school.

    Methods: Analysis of nationally representative longitudinal student data from 1988 to 1992.

    Key findings: Taking algebra early did not lead to more high school students dropping out of high school. Overall, the authors found positive effects from universal algebra policies.

    In the first of a series of studies on the effects of California’s push for universal algebra, Domina, Penner, Penner, and Coley (2014) looked at what math courses students in one district took in 8th grade from 2004 to 2007 and their overall achievement in the courses. While they found that the enrollment in 8th grade algebra increased, but that did not lead to changes in 10th grade mathematics achievement. Note that the state did not provide additional supports for teachers or students with this initiative.  Read more

    Citation: Domina, T., Penner, A., Penner, E., & Conley, A. (2014). Algebra for all: California’s eighth-grade algebra initiative as constrained curricula. Teachers College Record, 116(8), 1-32.


    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.

    Methods: Analysis of administrative data for 8th graders in one school district from three academic years.

    Key findings: More students took 8th grade algebra after the state implemented its new policy. While some of these students went on to take higher level courses in 10th grade, many did not. The reform increased the inclusiveness of math courses but slightly depressed student math achievement.

    In a state wide analysis of the effects of California’s universal algebra psuh, Domina, McEachin, and Penner (2015) found increased enrollment in 8th grade algebra but was associated with lower achievement in 10th grade math courses.     Read more

    Citation: Domina, T., McEachin, A., & Penner, A. (2015). Aiming high and falling short: California’s eighth-grade algebra-for-all effort. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(3), 275-295.

    Abstract: The United States is in the midst of an effort to intensify middle school mathematics curricula by enrolling more 8th graders in Algebra. California is at the forefront of this effort, and in 2008, the state moved to make Algebra the accountability benchmark test for 8th-grade mathematics. This article takes advantage of this unevenly implemented policy to understand the effects of curricular intensification in middle school mathematics. Using district-level panel data from all California K–12 public school districts, we estimate the effects of increasing 8th-grade Algebra enrollment rates on a 10th-grade mathematics achievement measure. We find that enrolling more students in advanced courses has negative average effects on students’ achievement, driven by negative effects in large districts.

    Methods: Analysis of state level panel data from 2003 to 2009.

    Key findings: Between 2003 and 2009, the enrollment in 8th grade algebra increased from 40% of students to 60% of students. However, later achievement scores in math declined.

    In a third study looking at the effects of California’s universal algebra push, Domina, Hanselman, and Hwang (2016) found that in addition to an increase in 8th grade algebra enrollment, there was also an increase in 7th grade algebra enrollment, which resulted in maintaining an advantage for students at wealthier schools.   Read more

    Citation: Domina, T.,  Hanselman, P., & Hwang, N. (2016). Detracking and tracking up: Mathematics course placements in California middle schools, 2003-2013. American Educational Research Journal, 53(4).

    Abstract: Between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of California eighth graders enrolled in algebra or a more advanced course nearly doubled to 65%. In this article, we consider the organizational processes that accompanied this curricular intensification. Facing a complex set of accountability, institutional, technical/functional, and internal political pressures, California schools responded to the algebra-for-all effort in diverse ways. While some schools detracked by enrolling all eighth graders in algebra, others ‘‘tracked up,’’ creating more advanced geometry opportunities while increasing algebra enrollments. These responses created a new differentiated course structure that is likely to benefit advantaged students. Consistent with the effectively maintained inequality hypothesis, we find that detracking occurred primarily in disadvantaged schools while ‘‘tracking up’’ occurred primarily in advantaged schools.

    Methods: Analysis of state panel data from 2002 to 2012.

    Key findings: 8th grade algebra enrollment increased from 35% in 2003 to 65% in 2013. However, the rate of growth for 8th grade geometry, an even more advanced class, grew even more quickly. In 2003, less than 5% of middle schools offered 8th grade geometry but by 2013 over half did and enrollment in the course had tripled. Despite the enrollment of more students in 8th grade algebra, the math curriculum in 8th grade became even more differentiated.

    Chicago was another locality that moved towards an algebra for all policy. From 1997 onwards, students were required to take algebra I before enrolling in high school. In the first of a series of studies on the effects of Chicago’s program, Allensworth, Nomi, and Montgomery (2009) found few positive effects from the program.     Read more

    Citation: Allensworth, E., Nomi, T., & Montgomery, N. (2009) College preparatory curriculum for all: Academic consequences of requiring algebra and English I for ninth graders in Chicago. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 367-391.

    Abstract: There is a national movement to universalize the high school curriculum so that all students graduate prepared for college. The present work evaluates a policy in Chicago that ended remedial classes and mandated college preparatory course work for all students. Based on an interrupted time-series cohort design with multiple comparisons, this study found that the policy reduced inequities in ninth grade course work by entering ability, race/ethnicity, and special education status. Although more students completed ninth grade with credits in algebra and English I, failure rates increased, grades slightly declined, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to enter college. In sum, few benefits resulted from universalizing college preparatory course work among freshmen, but dropout rates did not increase. Possible explanations are discussed.

    Methods: Analysis of test score and drop out data from 1994 to 2004, before and after the initiative in Chicago.

    Key findings: By 2000 almost all students  in the city were taking algebra in middle school. More students were gaining course credits for algebra by 9th grade, but the researchers found few other benefits from the policy with increases in math failure rates and no increase in upper level math credits or college enrollment.

    In 2003, Chicago modified its universal algebra mandate to also require that students entering ninth grade with lower math skills take two periods of algebra. Nome and Allensworth (2013) found that, unlike the regular initiative, this lead to some improvement in test scores although it also led to higher failure rates for some students.     Read more

    Citation: Nomi, T. & Allensworth, E. (2013). Sorting and supporting: Why double-dose algebra led to better test scores but more course failures. American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 756-788.

    Abstract: In 2003, Chicago schools required students entering ninth grade with below average math scores to take two periods of algebra. This led to higher test scores for students with both above- and below-average skills, yet failure rates increased for above-average students. We examine the mechanisms behind these surprising results. Sorting by incoming skills benefited the test scores of high-skill students partially through higher demands and fewer disruptive peers. But more students failed because their skills were low relative to class room peers. For below-average students, improvements in pedagogy and more time for learning offset problems associated with low-skill classrooms. In some cases, classrooms were not sorted, but below-average students took an extra support class simultaneously. Test scores also improved in such classes.

    Methods: Analysis of administrative data from the year before the double dose policy and the first year of the policy.

    Key findings: While test scores increased, overall course passing rates did not, leading the policy to be viewed as a failure. The researchers found strong peer effects in students’ achievement and that improved instruction in the second period of algebra for lower students led to some test score improvement.

    Nomi and Raudenbush (2016) looked again at the effects of the double dose algebra policy, this time focusing on classroom composition. They found that the double dose policy had a large effect at schools that kept students heterogeneously grouped but little effect at schools that sorted students by ability.    Read more

    Citation: Nomi, T., & Raudenbush, S. (2016). Making a success of “Algebra for All”: The impact of extended instructional time and classroom peer skill in Chicago. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(2), 431-451

    Abstract: In 2003, Chicago launched “Double-Dose Algebra,” requiring students with pretest scores below the national median to take two periods of math–algebra and supplemental coursework. In many schools, assignment to Double Dose changed the peer composition of the algebra classroom. Using school-specific instrumental variables within a regression-discontinuity design (RDD), we find that attending a lower skill classroom reduced math achievement for median-skill students. As a result, the Double-Dose policy had little or no effect for median-skill students in schools that exposed them to low-skill classrooms. However, the effects of Double Dose were substantially positive in schools that did not do so. We consider policy implications and interpretations of the results from RDDs.

    Methods: Analysis of student data for the 2003 to 2004 school year in Chicago.

    Key findings: Students who took double dose algebra due to low test scores gained .2 standard deviations in math achievement when they were in mixed classrooms but did not show gains in math achievement when they were in segregated low-ability classrooms.