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Closing the math skills gap and boosting achievement

One school invested in a program to boost its students' math performance.

As with so many other schools around the country, it was apparent that too many of our students, at all grade levels, were struggling with math and were performing significantly below grade level. Many of our students came to us with skill gaps of up to six or seven years, for which they had to attain proficiency within three, two or, unfortunately, even in one year. How could we reasonably expect our teachers to prepare students for higher-level math when many of their students were still functioning at such low-grade levels?

Over the years, we tried several math intervention approaches, but many of our students still did not understand math and continued to perform at significantly lower grade levels. As such, we knew we needed to find a different math intervention solution that would enable our teachers to teach math at grade level, but also meet the needs of those below-grade-level students, supporting a diverse set of needs and different learning styles.

Research shows that if our students fail science and math in the sixth grade, it will increase their risk of dropping out, and we wanted to decrease the likelihood of that happening to our students. We knew that the math intervention solution we chose had to identify the skill gaps not mastered in earlier grade levels, and then deliver targeted instruction to close those gaps through a prescriptive course plan that would quickly bring them up to grade level.

We wanted a solution with a strong instructional component that was designed by real teachers for struggling math learners. To support our diverse student population, we needed quality video instruction with extensive descriptive graphics. Plus, to help our students with the more difficult math concepts, we needed educational explorations, manipulatives, and practice to reinforce learning. Other critical needs included ongoing assessments and easily accessed and understandable reports for teachers, students, and parents to measure progress. In addition, we needed all of this at an affordable price.


Fort Stockton Middle School, located in west Texas, serves 540 students in a district of 2,378 students. Sixty-five percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, 412 are minority students, and many are English language learners. While Fort Stockton Middle School has a rich tradition of outstanding student achievement and provides a sound, standards-based education, some of our students continued to demonstrate weaknesses in math achievement year after year.

We turned to Ascend Math, a math intervention program that combines continuous assessment, targeted instruction, prescriptive tutorials, and reporting tools to give students a direct route to improved math performance. The instructional components of the Ascend Math program appealed to us as well. Master teachers give systematic, step-by-step instruction for the students in a particular concept. The research was compelling, demonstrating that Ascend Math closed math gaps two or more grade levels in a semester.

The first students to use Ascend Math were those with the greatest need in closing the math gaps. Those students were students failing their math class at grading periods, special education students, the Texas Discipline Alternative Education Program (DAEP), our attendance credit recovery Saturday school students, and 8th graders who failed the state assessment in math for several years.

Prior to using Ascend Math, students were assigned 30-minute tutorials with math teachers, 3 times per week. This proved to be ineffective and failed to produce the improvement that was so critically needed.

Integrating Ascend Math gave our teachers the opportunity to work with more students throughout the week and helped struggling students get back on track. Our teachers particularly appreciate Ascend Math as a complete math intervention solution that begins by diagnosing students’ strengths and weaknesses, then prescribes and delivers targeted instructional activities, ensuring consistent progress monitoring through ongoing formative assessments.


We began with any student who failed a math class for any grading period and then expanded to students in a Saturday attendance credit recovery. All students remanded to the DAEP program are assigned to Ascend Math, and we regularly add students based on identified needs. Students are using Ascend Math during their regular math class time and in an after school labs for 50 minutes, two to four times per week. They typically spend six to12 weeks learning with Ascend Math.


The staff at Fort Stockton Middle School has broadly embraced Ascend Math after seeing our school’s significant improvement in math skills. The impact Ascend has had on our school is tremendous. Teachers can tell which students are on the Ascend math program because of their improved math abilities and skills in the classroom and on their assessments. Most recently, we had 46 8th grade students fail the TAKS state assessment test in math on the first administration.

We took those 46 students and put them on Ascend Math for 3 weeks. They were on the program for 75 minutes after school, four days per week, and on Saturday for four hours. For three weeks, the students worked on Ascend from six to nine hours. Almost half of the students on Ascend passed the TAKS test the second time around, and the few who did not pass only missed by one or two questions, and are predicted to pass on the last administration.

Other results during the last six months

Sixth grade: Sixty-nine students, 1-2 hours a week, 45 percent passed. Of those who did not pass, four students gained more than a year’s progress in math on the TAKS test.

Sevents grade: Twenty-six students 1-2 hours a week, 65 percent passed. Of those who did not pass, 3 students gained more than a year’s progress in math on the TAKS test.

Eighth grade: Sixty students 1-2 hours a week, 63 percent passed. Of those who did not pass, 12 students gained more than a year’s progress in math on the TAKS test. After the second administration of the TAKS test, the total eighth grade pass rate rose from 74 percent to 86 percent. The only real difference was the use of Ascend Math for three weeks, where students worked six to nine hours a week before the second administration of the test. We had a few eighth grade students who have never passed a TAKS math in middle school or their entire academic lives until this year. We attribute this to the use of Ascend Math.

Another success that comes to mind involves a special education student who was motivated to work more than 23 hours on the Ascend Math program and received commended performance on the state assessment in math.

Some keys to success

1.  Having worked in the district for 15 years, I was well-positioned to propose to teachers and parents that this was something different. I demonstrated how teachers would be able to spend less time creating lesson plans for the extra tutorials and more time working with their struggling students, and that teachers using Ascend were doing better with their struggling students. The little resistance quickly faded as successes became apparent.
2. A major aspect was getting students to work on the program with fidelity. After meeting with students and parents, a rigorous schedule was implemented, along with automatic daily reminder phone calls and second calls to parents to inform them of the next day’s schedule. Students who missed a tutorial session are assigned a makeup day.
3. Parental buy in was important!
4. Professional development. Teachers were trained by Ascend on all aspects of the program, including how to set goals for students and interpret readily-available reports to easily monitor their progress. Our teachers saw how Ascend could supplement their teaching and addresses many different learner needs that are difficult to address within the normal school day.
5. Feeder school buy-in. Close collaboration with our feeder school was important so that skill gaps at the lower grades were closed as much as possible before student came to the middle school

We plan to continue our use of Ascend Math at Fort Stockton Middle School and are looking at creative ways to schedule class time throughout the day for those students who are most struggling with math.

Gil-Rey Madrid is the principal at Fort Stockton Middle School in Fort Stockton, Texas.

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