Higher Standards Do Not Necessarily Mean Better Learning

Raise the bar and students will automatically rise to the challenge. If this is true then education reform is indeed easy. One simply has to write a new curriculum with greater demands. One may start teaching quantum mechanics in kindergarten. Of course, this could be also viewed as an extreme and inappropriate. But take, for example, a milder reform: Require every student to take algebra in 8th grade. This is what the state of California has done which enables us to see what "raising the bar" actually does in real life.

The following paper is published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis:

 Aiming High and Falling Short: California’s
Eighth-Grade Algebra-for-All Effort
Thurston Domina
University of California, Irvine
Andrew McEachin
North Carolina State University
Andrew Penner
University of California, Irvine
Emily Penner
Stanford University

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.

A drawing perhaps drives the message from the above study more effectively, so here it is:

An increase in enrollment in Algebra by grade 8 students leads to lower scores in the math exam administered years later at grade 10. The decrease is about 0.05 - 0.07 of the standard deviation. This drop in the score is equivalent to about 15% of the gap shown below: (about 5 points in the NAEP Math Exam)

Fifteen percent of the gap, thirty one points, is about five. How big is 5 points in the NAEP exam. Here is a graph showing the average NAEP Math scores for the years 2004, 2008 and 2012:

Thus, 5 points summarize how much math scores have improved nationally in the past eight years. This is the result of "raising the bar" - It can do the opposite. It can in fact throw a country eight years back. Higher standards do not necessarily mean better learning. Higher standards require good implementation and most of all, the question of appropriateness needs to be seriously addressed.