Beginning in the 2010-11 school year, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) initiated a program that directed more students into an accelerated track leading to 8th grade algebra.

According to a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study, that effort yielded mixed results.  In “Early Math Coursework and College Readiness: Evidence from Targeted Middle School Math Acceleration,” Shaun Dougherty, Joshua Goodman, Darryl Hill, Erica Litke, and Lindsay Page documented three effects WCPSS’s middle school math acceleration policy.  (Emphases added.)

1. “First, the new assignment rule, with its emphasis on standardized measures of past academic performance, substantially reduced the role that income and race played in course assignment.”

2. “Our second finding concerns the impact of math acceleration on students’ short run outcomes. A regression discontinuity design comparing students just above and below the eligibility threshold shows that acceleration has little clear effect on test scores and often lowers the grades students earn in their middle school math courses.”

3. “Our third finding therefore concerns the longer-run impact of middle school math acceleration on the coursework trajectory of treated students. Of students accelerated in 7th grade, we find that only three-fifths remain on that track by 8th grade (taking algebra) and only two-fifths remain on that track by 9th grade (taking geometry). One positive result this suggests is that targeted acceleration in middle school does increase substantially the probability of being on a college-ready math track in high school. For black and Hispanic students, for example, acceleration in 7th grade increases by over 30 percentage points the probability of taking and passing geometry in 9th grade. Conversely, while a decent fraction of accelerated students pass freshman geometry, few if any excel in such courses by earning As or Bs. Perhaps more importantly, leakages in this pipeline are so large that the majority of students revert back to the lower math track within two years of initial acceleration.”

In other words, the policy appears to have increased diversity in course enrollment but did not boost academic performance for the majority of accelerated students.