CORVALLIS, Ore. - Almost 50 percent of students repeated a math class between eighth and 10th grades and more than 60 percent showed no evidence of improving their math proficiency after repeating the class, according to a recently published analysis of data from six California school districts by an Oregon State University researcher.

In the analysis, Karen Thompson, an assistant professor in the College of Education, also found that the math obstacle was often more pronounced in students not proficient in English.

For example, students who at the time were not proficient in English, whom she calls "current English learners," were three times less likely to ever score proficient in Algebra 1 and about four times less likely to enroll in an accelerated math program, compared to students proficient in English.

"Not only is the system not successful the first time in achieving the desired outcome, but the follow-up method is also not working," Thompson said. "This research provides a clear message that just having the students repeat a class that they just failed is not an effective strategy."

High school math courses are often seen as gatekeepers to a college education. Yet, successful completion of high school math courses remains elusive for many, particularly English learners, who account for about 1 in 10 students in the United States.

Thompson, who was formerly a teacher in an English-Spanish bilingual classroom in California, set out to better understand that math obstacle.

Her paper, "What Blocks the Gate?  Exploring Current and Former English Learners' Math Course-Taking in Secondary School," which was just published in the American Educational Research Journal, has two components.

First, she analyzed data from four cohorts of students enrolled in seventh to 10th grade from 2005-06 to 2011-12 school years in the six California districts.

Among the key findings:

  • Only 35 percent of all students ever scored proficient on algebra 1 and only 12 percent of "current English learners" ever scored proficient.
  • 61 percent of all students who repeated algebra 1 had the same or a lower math proficiency after taking the class the second time. The number was 67 percent for current English learners.
  • 25 percent of all students enrolled in an accelerated math sequence and only 7 percent of current English learners were enrolled.
  • 45 percent of all students repeated a math class between eighth and 10th grades and 50 percent of current English learner students repeated a math class during those grades.

The one caveat with this data is that during the time period Thompson studied California was pushing to enroll all eighth graders in algebra, a policy decision that no doubt impacted the data, Thompson said.

For the second component of the paper, Thompson reconnected with 14 students she taught in fourth grade and interviewed them when they were high school seniors about their lifelong personal and academic experiences.

She learned that students didn't have trouble accessing classes, but had trouble succeeding once they were enrolled, particularly in math. That led her to conclude that educators and policymakers need to consider alternate pathways for students who fail a class.

She recommends that districts and schools consider how to expand math tutoring opportunities. Given funding limitations, schools could potentially explore peer tutoring models or partner with local universities or nonprofits to implement volunteer-based tutoring programs.

She also believes technology-enabled personalized learning merits further exploration. And she says districts and schools might consider experimenting with mathematics support classes, in which students receive tailored instruction during one period of the school day to support them in their core mathematics courses.

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By Sean Nealon, 541-737-0787,


Karen Thompson, 541-737-2988,