New research indicates targeted, personalized math instruction can fuel math gains

Two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, students are still grappling with unfinished learning.

NWEA research released earlier this summer showed student gains in the 2021–2022 school year are returning to be consistent with pre-pandemic trends—an improvement over the year before, where growth lagged historic averages. However, students were still behind academically compared to where they should be had the pandemic not occurred. The gaps are worse in math than reading and show that it will take longer for older students to get back on track than younger ones. The research also consistently shows historically marginalized groups continue to be the most impacted, and this needs to be a core focus of recovery efforts.

As educators, policymakers, and families look for ways to address disrupted learning associated with the pandemic, it’s critical to look for evidence of what’s working. While no single intervention on its own will get US students back on track, it is important to learn from programs that are making a difference.

What the research shows

Across the country, educators and policymakers are trying several approaches to help students catch up. For example, the Nebraska Department of Education is making Zearn Math, an online tool that provides targeted math instruction to students to help catch them up, available to schools this summer and in the upcoming 2022–2023 school year. In Oklahoma, the state education agency launched Math Tutoring Corps in spring 2022 and is working to expand the number of students receiving math tutoring by recruiting college students.

Instructional tools are only effective when they advance student progress.

NWEA teamed up in 2019 with nonprofit partner Khan Academy to create a tool called MAP® Accelerator™, which focuses on empowering teachers to personalize math instruction for students. MAP Accelerator integrates MAP® Growth™ assessment results with Khan Academy lessons, instructional videos, and practice problems tailored to students’ individual needs. When MAP Growth data shows students need support in a particular content area of math instruction, the intervention focuses specifically on that need.

We know that instructional tools are only effective when they advance student progress. Khan Academy researchers analyzed student data from fall 2020 to spring 2021 to examine whether MAP Accelerator helps fuel math gains. Nearly 100 districts and about 180,000 students in grades 3–8 were included in the study. The results show students who used the tool for the recommended amount of time, 30 or more minutes per week, made gains in math that exceeded growth projections based on pre-pandemic norms. This was true for all subgroups of students.

The strong growth patterns bucked national trends of student growth during the 2020–2021 school year, which was lower than pre-pandemic growth rates. This research suggests targeted math interventions that personalize learning and address specific areas of academic need can help address unfinished learning resulting from the pandemic.

Looking for evidence of success across programs

To further assess which COVID-recovery interventions are showing promise, NWEA is participating in a research collaboration with CALDER at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the Center for Education Policy and Research (CEPR) at Harvard, and districts across the country. We hope to share important findings with the field in a timely way. In the meantime, districts need to make informed decisions with the information they have, taking local context and data into consideration, and by looking at programs and strategies that appear to be working in and outside their communities. Specifically, this project is looking at the impacts of extended learning opportunities, such as summer programs, tutoring, after-school programs, and extended school years.

Beyond this project, we are already seeing signs of success in districts that are investing in extended learning opportunities. For example, the Indiana Summer Learning Labs, which provide summer learning and enrichment opportunities to students across Indianapolis, are driving academic achievement. For summer programs to be effective, they need to take steps to promote high student attendance, such as by offering free transportation and making the learning engaging, according to research by the RAND Corporation. As we head back to school this fall, high-quality after-school programs can also support student learning. However, like with summer programs, quality and attendance matter a lot.

Tutoring programs also have been shown to produce positive academic gains and can be worthwhile investments, particularly when teachers provide the services. Such programs are most effective when they are run in small groups and in high doses, use data-informed practices, and are tied to high-quality curricular materials.

Targeted math interventions that personalize learning and address specific areas of academic need can help address unfinished learning resulting from the pandemic.

To ensure approaches improve student outcomes, it’s critical to use evidence-based strategies aligned to how students learn best. So, for example, it’s vital that literacy interventions follow the latest evidence related to the science of reading.

It’s also essential we focus on metrics beyond academics, given the extraordinary challenges young people face today. The CDC recently reported more than a third of high school students have experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent shared feeling persistently sad or hopeless over the past year. Additionally, a recent survey by the Khan Academy found that teachers view student behavioral issues and mental health challenges as barriers to addressing pandemic opportunity gaps. Feeling connected to school improves student well-being, and educators, leaders, and policymakers should look for ways to foster that sense of belonging among students. It’s also vital that schools make mental health services available in schools, increase access to school nurses and counseling, and conduct systematic mental health screening to better understand which students need support.

More federal support is needed

All of these efforts and interventions are essential if we are to make a full recovery and address inequities in our education system worsened by the pandemic. Importantly, they will require additional federal investments.

While the government has approved nearly $200 billion in funding to go toward school recovery efforts, that only covers programs through 2024. We know from our latest research that addressing unfinished learning will take much longer than that, particularly in some grades and for students from historically marginalized groups who have more ground to make up than others. States and districts also need to plan in sustainable ways. The so-called “fiscal cliff” is making it challenging for states and districts to plan for a full and lasting recovery.

The new NWEA research indicating that MAP Accelerator fuels math gains is welcome news, but it should be viewed as one of many strategies needed if we’re truly going to close pandemic-related opportunity gaps in a timely and equitable way.

As we look for other innovative ways to close gaps among students, we’d love to hear from you. What are you seeing in your communities and, in particular, what interventions do you see working? To connect, reach out @NWEAPolicy on Twitter.

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