Learning First Alliance

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Using Electives to Get Struggling Students More Math

John Gregg, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, Michigan

Story posted April, 2008


• Participants math benchmark assessment scores improved by 17% from 2004 to 2005 and 9% from 2005-2006
• Math Essentials students on average outperformed grade-level students as a whole on the first two benchmark assessments of 2006-2007

The high schools in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District had a problem. Some students were scoring below proficiency on their 8th grade standardized tests. Fueled by the conviction that all students can learn, and that high school is not too late to turn students' lives around, the district tried many strategies to address this challenge: It pulled students out of their grade level courses, subjected them to a computer-based intervention, and stretched a semester's worth of content into a year of instruction. Yet student performance data from these intervention programs showed no effect or, in some cases, even negative effects on student achievement.

But that changed when the district began Math Essentials. Math Essentials helps struggling students catch up with their peers by holding them to the same high expectations while offering them additional personal support for meeting those expectations.

Using district-wide benchmark assessments and state standardized test scores, schools identify students whose performance falls below grade-level expectations in math. These students have the opportunity to take a grade level math course together with an elective "Essentials" math course--two hours of math a day. For example, a struggling ninth-grade student may take both Algebra and Algebra Essentials in the same semester.

Math Essentials is not a study hall or a place to do homework. Instead, it is a course where teachers pre-teach and re-teach knowledge and skills covered in the grade level course, as well as study habits and other behaviors that promote academic success. Each enrolled student has at least two different mathematics teachers--one for Math Essentials and another for the grade-level course-so each student is exposed to multiple perspectives and teaching strategies. Extensive collaboration among staff ensures that both courses remain closely aligned. Before a teacher introduces a new concept in a grade-level class, for example, the Essentials course prepares students to understand critical vocabulary and avoid common misperceptions about that concept. The staff also works together to develop common formative assessments that complement the district-wide benchmark assessments.

The district keeps Math Essentials courses small, capping them at 15 students each. The small class sizes help teachers differentiate instruction to help each student master expectations. Teachers regularly monitor student learning through formative assessments whose results help them tailor instruction to individual student needs. Teachers enjoy the creative freedom to use strategies that work best for their students.

walled2.JPGOne of the most important aspects of this program: It maintains the same high expectations for Math Essentials students as for all other students, because it does not remove lower-performing students from grade-level classes with their peers. This strategy supports Math Essentials students' self-esteem while preventing them from falling farther behind.

The results of the Math Essentials program are clear: Students who formerly struggled in math do much better in standardized mathematics assessments. On district-wide benchmark assessments aligned with state standards, scores of students in Math Essentials improved by 17% from 2004 to 2005 and by 9% from 2005 to 2006. On the first two benchmark assessments of 2006-2007, the Math Essentials students on average outperformed grade-level students as a whole. At the end of the first semester, Math Essentials students' average benchmark score was within 3% of scores earned by students not receiving the intervention. When students demonstrate that they no longer need Math Essentials, school staff move them out of the program.

Data on students' perception of the program offer a strong testament to its success. Students receiving the intervention report feeling more connected with the staff and better supported to achieve learning expectations.

Encouraged by these results, Walled Lake is expanding the program. What began as a pilot program for about 75 students at a single high school now serves some 250 algebra and 120 geometry students in all three of the district's traditional high schools. The district has begun experimenting with the program in middle schools and in different high school subject areas, such as biology.

The Walled Lake Consolidated School District has learned that the key to helping struggling students is not to lower expectations. Instead, they must increase students' opportunities to succeed.

For additional information, please contact:
John Gregg
Math/Science Coordinator
Walled Lake Consolidated Schools