by Becky Palmer-Scott
When my daughter was in 8th grade, her math teacher refused to assign homework. “Kids won’t do it,” he said. He may have been right. Many of her classmates came from families ill-equipped to help with homework, and there were students with special needs mixed into the classroom. So the teacher tried to present all the learning during the class hour. However, this was not a successful approach, and most of the kids got poor grades.
I think math homework is crucial, but I understood his viewpoint. For students who see themselves as poor learners or who don’t have learning support at home, math homework can seem insurmountable, and of questionable value if done incorrectly.
When another of my daughters attended community college, the professor offered a math homework approach that she loved. It was McGraw Hill’s Connect Math, designed for adult learners. It presents math problems that students solve online. When the student makes a mistake, the program highlights the error, shows the correct way to solve the problem, and then presents a similar problem. This makes doing a homework an interactive learning experience which is nonthreatening. My daughter loved it and said she finally understood concepts which had escaped her during years of high school. She gladly did all her homework, and it was all solved correctly so it didn’t need to be graded.
“If only there is something like this for K-12!” I thought. And there is! It’s McGraw Hill’s ALEKS®. In the Q&A that follows, veteran teacher Sue Darden shares how she successfully implemented personalized, online math program ALEKS® to meet the widely varied needs of her students. The results were dramatic!
Interview with 6th grade teacher Sue Darden
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was provided by McGraw Hill. If you have further questions you can reach Ms. Darden at Darden.Sue@westada.org.
SpecialEdTech.net did not receive funds nor pay for reprinting this interview.
Q. Welcome Sue! To start, would you mind telling us a little about yourself and your experience in education?
A. “My name is Sue Darden, and I am starting my 26th year of teaching. For the past 17 years, I have been teaching 6th grade math in the West Ada School District in Idaho. I am currently the only 6th grade math teacher at Galileo STEM Academy, which is a K-8 School of Choice in our district.”
Q. Prior to using ALEKS, what were some of the challenges that your class or school faced in math?
A. “Meeting the diverse needs of all of my students has always been my biggest challenge. Like other 6th grade classes in my district, I have students from all ability levels in my math classes. Prior to the adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my district tested 5th graders, and those who scored high enough skipped 6th grade math, and were placed in 7th grade math classes while in the 6th grade class. Even before I had the advanced students in my 6th grade classes, it was hard in a 47-minute period to truly find the time to differentiate, especially for my IEP students.”
Q. How did ALEKS help to address these challenges?
A. “Realizing that I had to find some way to help me differentiate instruction, I knew I needed to change how I taught, and I also started looking at online programs to supplement my instruction. I was very excited when I found ALEKS because it was truly individualized for each student, was aligned to the CCSS, was so easy to administer, and had frequent assessments to make sure that my students were progressing. Every student, from those on an IEP to those who are Gifted and Talented, can be challenged at their academic level.”
Q. Can you please describe for us how ALEKS® was implemented in your classroom?
A. “To truly differentiate for my students, I now do two things. First, I pre-assess my students before teaching concepts, and create flexible groups based on the skills/concepts that the students need to master. My second big change was to have all of my students using ALEKS at least two hours a week. Because of grants I have written, and a pilot program I participated in for my district, I do have one-on-one devices for all of my students. However, even with the devices, ALEKS is a supplement, not the primary instruction, so the students may only have about 30 minutes a week of ALEKS in class. The rest of their time on ALEKS does need to be completed while outside of school.”
Q. What were some of the specific learning outcomes/results you’ve seen using the program?
A. “I have been differentiating and using ALEKS to supplement my instruction for the past two years, and I have seen dramatic results on my own as well as on standardized assessments. For instance, the year before I made changes in my instruction, 81 percent of my students passed my teacher-generated test, with 58 percent scoring 80 percent or higher. The first year I used ALEKS, 97 percent of my students passed my test, with 75 percent scoring 80 percent or higher.
In addition to the state standardized test, my district participates in the MAP test. Here are my results for the past three years.
2012-2013 (Before ALEKS): 59 percent made growth targets
2013-2014: 74.9 percent made growth targets
2014-2015: 95.6 percent made growth targets
This year, Idaho participated in the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) test along with at least 16 other states. As the only 6th grade math teacher at Galileo, the school results for 6th grade are all my students.
SBAC RESULTS – OVERALL PROFICIENCY:
• Galileo – 74 percent
• West Ada – 46 percent
• Idaho – 36 percent
*the consortium includes all the states that participated in the testing”
Q. What are the top three things you’d want people to know about ALEKS?
A. “1. There is no wasted time with ALEKS in the classroom. If a student finishes an assignment early, they log on to ALEKS. When they finish an assessment, they go on ALEKS. Using ALEKS, keeps students engaged and on task.
2. ALEKS is so easy to administer. It is super simple to sign students up, change the class they are in, or check their progress.
3. It works! ALEKS truly individualizes for each student and gives them skills/concepts they need in a logical order, and results have been phenomenal!”
Q. How was your overall experience using the program?
A. “I have been extremely pleased with ALEKS! It’s so easy to use, the students’ scores have been very impressive, the parents have been very supportive, and at the end of the year, when I shared our results on the standardized tests with my students, and I asked why they think their scores were so high, in each class, the students all responded with a one word answer, ‘ALEKS!’ “
Q. Are there any final comments you’d like to share?
A. “My principal and I have been so impressed with the quality of instruction on ALEKS, that we have come up with a way for students to skip 7th grade math and go directly into 8th grade math as a 7th grade student. We have three requirements: 1) The student must earn an “A” for both semesters, 2) The student must complete 85 percent of 6th grade ALEKS, and 80 percent of 7th grade ALEKS, and 3) the student must score “Advanced” on the district MAP test. We make no exceptions, but this past year 25 percent of my students qualified to advance into 8th grade math for the next academic year.”
Trying it out
ALEKS® is not free, but does offer a free trial, available at https://www.aleks.com/free_trial/consumer. The free trial allows students to experience an individualized ALEKS® assessment, view a detailed report of their knowledge and learning path, and learn new topics through targeted practice problems. It also lets teachers monitor student progress through automated reports, assign quizzes, and manage multiple student accounts.
Pricing and getting funding
The price of ALEKS® depends on which features are used and for how long — anywhere from $5 to $45 per student. See the pricing chart here.
If your school cannot afford to buy the tools you want, there are a variety of funding sources just for teachers, such as DonorsChoose.org. For more information, see Carmen Watts-Clayton’s article, “Funding Your Dream Classroom” on SpecialEdTech.net.
If you do pursue funding, it’s important to quote outcomes which show that the tool will be successful, such as the statistics provided earlier in this article. For other ALEKS® success stories, see https://www.aleks.com/k12/success_stories.