Algebra access to eighth-graders being studied in Maine

Posted Jan. 24, 2009, at 3:58 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Fifty mostly rural schools in Maine are participating in a three-year, federally funded research study to examine whether improving access to Algebra for eighth-graders through the use of an online course benefits student math achievement.

Launched last September, the Pathways to Math Achievement Study provides an online Algebra I course to schools that currently do not offer algebra to their eighth-grade students.

Participating schools have identified which of their eighth-graders were ready to take Algebra I in the current academic year, and those students are receiving the online course. Researchers will track the mathematics achievement and course-taking patterns of participating students and their classmates into 10th grade.

The study is being conducted out of Boston by Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), one of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories nationwide funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

“Maine’s rural schools either have difficulty recruiting teachers with the background necessary to teach algebra or have a limited number of students ready for algebra because of the size of the schools,” said Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron. “The Pathways to Math Achievement study will help guide our policy recommendations regarding Algebra I in the eighth grade.

“Improving middle and high-school student achievement in mathematics is a national and regional concern. National and state policymakers advocate offering Algebra I to more eighth-graders because it is an important gatekeeper course” to taking more advanced math courses in high school, she added.

Maine was selected for the study largely because of its robust technology infrastructure. Since 2002, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative has equipped all seventh- and eighth-graders and their teachers with wireless laptop computers. The schools will receive the online Algebra I course at no cost for two consecutive years. The course is provided by the online curriculum developer Class.com.

“This study will offer policymakers and educators scientifically valid evidence of whether offering Algebra I to ready eighth-graders through the use of an online course leads to greater math achievement in high school. This evidence can be used to make decisions to support effective education policy,” said Margaret Clements, co-principal investigator and senior researcher at Education Development Center Inc., which administers REL-NEI.

Pathways to Math Achievement is a randomized control trial, or RCT, with an intervention group of schools, offering the online course this academic year, and a comparison group of schools that do not have the course this year but will receive it at no cost during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 academic years. Participating schools agreed to be assigned to the treatment or control groups through a lottery.

The use of online courses is growing rapidly nationwide. Among the potential benefits of online courses is they can help schools hampered by tight budgets, understaffing, or small size to expand educational opportunities for their students, Clements said.

For more information, visit virtualalgebrastudy.org.

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