From the Field

Research Notes: Improving Achievement in Middle School Math

Performance of secondary students in reading and math can be among the best predictors of college outcomes and early career wages. One approach to improving that performance is Changing the Odds, a program focused on math achievement in high-needs middle schools.

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the program led to a significant annual increase in test scores for students in schools using the program, with the smallest impact in the program’s first year and better outcomes in later years.

A research team from the University of California, San Diego—Julian R. Betts, Andrew C. Zau, Karen Volz Bachofer, and Dina Polichar—use data from the program’s use in four middle schools in the San Diego Unified School District between the 2015-16 and 2018-19 school years. The key elements of the program included systems to help identify which math skills students had yet to master, a revamped coaching program for math teachers, and improved professional learning communities within each of the schools.

By comparing student math achievement for program schools with other districts schools with similar demographics, the research team was able to measure the impact. They found that schools using the program performed better than the control schools during the experiment, mainly due to the focus of improving curriculum designs; the first year was less effective given that the program was only just being implemented.

Given the success of the program, which could be reproduced in schools nationwide, the researchers include a cost-benefit analysis that found that additional costs are modest, though not inconsequential.

This research offers insight into improving key achievement metrics for high-needs middle schools and can inform education stakeholders’ understanding of how to best address existing achievement gaps that could have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Read the Research

Changing the Odds: Student Achievement After Introduction of a Middle School Math Intervention

January 2023

Julian R. Betts, Andrew C. Zau, Karen Volz Bachofer and Dina Polichar