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Harvard finds merit in Hub’s higher level classes

Study details benefits to minority students

As Boston’s new school superintendent plans to expand access to advanced-work classes in grades 4 through 6, a new Harvard policy brief shows that the classes do not improve scores on standardized tests, including the SAT, or chances of acceptance to city exam schools, but do provide other benefits, especially for minority students.

Black and Hispanic students who enrolled in advanced-work classes were more likely to graduate on time and go to college, according to the brief set for release Monday by Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. All advanced-work students were more likely to enroll in higher-level math classes, take Advanced Placement tests, and matriculate at highly selective colleges.


The brief is based on a study comparing students who scored just above the threshold for admittance and just below that mark, so the students had comparable academic abilities.

Superintendent Tommy Chang said he wants each member of the group he is assembling to explore expanded access to advanced work to read the research.

“This study actually just underscores for me why we need to improve rigor for all students,” Chang, 40, said in a phone interview Friday. “When you set higher expectations for youth, they live up to those expectations.”

Advanced-work classes, which are available in less than a third of Boston’s elementary and K-8 schools, separate students who score well on standardized tests in grades 3 or 5 from the general-education population and hold them to higher academic standards.

But because enrolling often means transferring to a new school for fourth grade, only about half of those offered seats accept them, according to Sarah Cohodes, who conducted the study while completing a doctorate in public policy.

About 6 percent of fourth- and fifth-grade students enroll in the program, and about 9 percent of sixth-grade students do, but some slight variation by race was found, Cohodes said. Asian students are most likely to accept seats, while black students are less likely than average to enroll if invited, though the difference is not statistically significant.


Cohodes conducted her research using data on all students who took the test for admission into advanced work from 2001 to 2012.

Students in the program, she found, were more likely to take Algebra I in eighth grade, putting them on track to take AP Calculus as seniors — one of the program’s goals.

“Almost all students who participate in AWC for three years end up in Algebra I by eighth grade, compared to about two-thirds of students . . . if they’re not participating in the program,” Cohodes said. “And it seems like math acceleration and taking AP Calculus is a potential pathway to these elite colleges.”

All students in the program were about three times as likely as their peers to attend highly competitive universities, Cohodes found, and the likelihood that black and Hispanic students would enroll in college increased about 10 percent for each year they were in advanced-work classes.

Two members of Boston’s Citywide Parent Council who reviewed the study said it provided important insights — particularly in showing that student performance was much more likely to be influenced by teachers than by peers.

But they said that data tracking students who went through the program as long as 10 to 15 years ago could not capture the effects of subsequent changes to school curriculums.


Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, who has daughters at the Curley K-8 School and Boston Latin Academy, said in recent years the gap between advanced work and general education has narrowed at some schools, but there is still work to be done.

“This is a very uneven terrain that we live in, and I think your life chances are really, unfortunately, still very dependent on the school that you just happen to go to,” said Berents-Weeramuni, 48.

Mary Battenfeld, a humanities and American studies professor at Wheelock College whose two younger children took advanced-work classes at the Hennigan K-8 School, said she hopes such rigorous coursework will be made available to all students, along with the necessary support and training for teachers.

“You can’t just say, ‘OK, now our classroom has a range of learners,’” said Battenfeld, 57. “You have to have teachers who are trained, who are supported. You have to have everything from technologies to curriculums that can support a range of learners.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.