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New Research Shows A Way To Close Learning Gaps, Improve Math Proficiency

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Dozens, maybe even hundreds of writers have pecked and published countless stories about pandemic-related learning gaps – the knowledge and skills that students have simply lost during the hodge-podge shift to remote and hybrid learning.

Unfortunately, fewer have written many words at all about what can be done about it.

But new research about a relatively new learning tool indicates that schools and districts can be remarkably successful in not just addressing the pandemic learning gaps but in vaulting over them. That would be – should be – big news.

The findings are especially relevant because they come from Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District (HCISD) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It’s one of the most severely disadvantaged districts in the state, a place where 80% of students are considered economically depressed and similar amounts were not reaching proficiency in math.

The research tracked a pilot pre-K program using My Math Academy, a relatively new offering from Age of Learning, which developed the highly popular ABCMouse learning program. The company says it has served 50 million children and families to date.

The results of the pilot were, in a word, “phenomenal.”

That’s the word Carmen Alvarez, Director of Primary Literacy at HCISD used. Actually, she said “phenomenal.” But added, “Honestly, I just can’t come up with enough adjectives.”

So, what does phenomenal look like in a district like HCISD on early math proficiency?

It looks like going from 80% of students being behind on proficiency to 98% of students who regularly used My Math Academy being “on track” in math, according to a state assessment. In the study, “regular use” was just 40 minutes per week, combined home and school.

“Our biggest surprise,” Alvarez said, “was that when our students took the national math assessments, 49 percent scored in the 60th percentile or above and 27 percent were in the 80th percentile or above.”

“To show that kind of correlation, where 98% of students who use it achieve efficiency, to have that in a year, we were obviously very happy with the results,” said Sunil Gunderia, Chief Innovation Officer, Head of Mastery and Adaptive Product at Age of Learning. “It reaffirmed what we understood from our 15 years in this space – that My Math Academy could achieve results,” he said.

It wasn’t just the test scores that Alvarez says impressed her. “We used it in pre-K all summer but the math assessments didn’t take place until early fall. And that the kids did so well shows that there was retention, that it was not short term memory,” she said. “It’s not just learning but retaining.”

One of the keys, according to Gunderia, is a “personalized mastery approach that gives agency over learning.” The system is game-based and students progress by gaining and demonstrating knowledge. “Importantly,” Gunderia says, “it does not penalize for getting something wrong because we see feedback as part of the learning process and a big part of growth mindset.”

The pilot program went so well at HCISD that they’ve expanded the use of My Math Academy and its reach.

“We did really deep thinking on our 3rd graders because the last real, non-disrupted school year they had was Kindergarten,” Alvarez said. “So, we asked if we could use it in third grade and we did. There too we found that kids are accelerating and closing those learning gaps. We’re now using it with Pre-K to grow proficiency and mastery and in 3rd grade, where it’s an intervention,” she said. “All are showing tremendous results.”

The pilot started with 800 students. Next year, HCISD will use My Math Academy with 5,000.

“The proficiency gap in early math is really an abject failure of our education system,” said Gunderia. “And we are thrilled that we may have a learning tool that can help, that shows it can close those gaps.”

For Alvarez, the progress is more real because it’s closer to home. “This area has been oppressed for so long that giving us the opportunity for our kids to be a success in an area where they have been traditionally not strong – that’s big,” she said. “Knowing that they can be successful not just for the time being but beyond, getting over that math hurdle, that changes everything. The children see themselves now as mathematicians,” Alvarez said.

“We have this incredible opportunity now,” Gunderia said, “to take what we’re learning from this pandemic, the availability of technology that works, and the chance to really use education technology to tackle this challenge we’ve had in the U.S. for a long time – and to do it aggressively.”

There’s no argument that the proficiency gaps in math and other foundational skills are a serious and long-term drain on the entire educational system, especially now, as we’re hearing and reading so much about Covid’s legacy of lengthened learning gaps. With that reality, most school districts would kill to replicate the good news coming out of the Rio Grande Valley. The best news may be that they don’t have to, there appears to be a much easier way.

Originally posted on Forbes on June 7, 2022.