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Solving the Math Readiness Problem

Blended learning and adaptive software are helping the state of Tennessee make sure its high school graduates are prepared for college-level mathematics.

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Several years ago, 75 percent of graduating high school seniors in Tennessee were not ready for college-level math. "It was clear that this was not acceptable and something needed to be done," said Robert Denn, dean of honors and special programs at Chattanooga State Community College (CSCC). "The lecture and homework model was not working."

Tennessee is not alone: College math readiness is a persistent problem for higher ed institutions across the U.S. According to a 2014 report from ACT, 57 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates across the country failed to meet math readiness benchmarks. When these students show up for their first year of college, they must take developmental classes to catch up — and too many never pass those courses. But by combining college and high school math content in an online environment taught in high school computer labs, educators in the state of Tennessee believe they have found a solution.

A Hybrid Approach

To attack the problem head-on, the state piloted a blended learning program called SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support). By aligning and embedding the Tennessee Board of Regents college developmental competencies with the Tennessee Department of Education bridge math standards, SAILS essentially moves the developmental math course from college into the senior year of high school. Developed by high school teachers and community college instructors, the self-paced math course is designed for low-scoring students with college aspirations. Students learn online in a school computer lab with a teacher on hand to help. Those who successfully complete the course are deemed ready to take a college math course, saving them time and money.

Schools that participate in the SAILS program have to take a completely new approach with their math students, noted John Squires, mathematics department head at CSCC. "These students have an average ACT score of 14, and the traditional lecture classes did not work for them," he said. Instead, SAILS students use Pearson's MyMathLab adaptive learning software as a central part of the course. "We require that students spend at least 50 percent of the class time at the computer," said Squires. In a mastery-learning model, students have to pass each competency before they move on to the next. "That is not the typical way math is taught in high school," he added. SAILS field coordinators assist teachers in making the transition to the new approach.

Early Courses Get Results

The SAILS program builds on an earlier program at Chattanooga State called ECHO (Early College Hybrid Online), which offered accelerated students in high school the opportunity to take college-level courses such as calculus and statistics.

Denn and Kim McCormick, CSCC's provost and vice president for academic affairs, studied the data from the ECHO program. "It showed that if high school students take one early course, their persistence in college improves," said Denn, who is SAILS' program director. "We sought to extend that model to students who need more help."

The 2012-2013 SAILS pilot, with four community colleges working with 20 high schools, showed promising results. At Chattanooga State, more than 80 percent of the students in the pilot entered college ready to take a college-level math course. Eager to build on that success, the state provided $1.12 million to scale the program up. In 2013-2014, SAILS expanded to 13 community colleges and 122 high schools, and it is now moving toward a full statewide rollout. It is expected to serve 184 high schools and 13,636 students in the 2014-2015 school year.

"There were logistical challenges, as there are any time you manage growth," Denn said. "But we have almost every district in the state clamoring for spots in the program. We have support from every sector in the state, from the governor's office to the Board of Regents to superintendents, and chambers of commerce. That really helps."

One of the benefits of having an online program is that it generates real-time data — when students are struggling, schools can intervene quickly with more resources. Sometimes principals and parents are asked to get more involved. "The college partners can see everything going on in the software," Squires said. "There is transparency and teamwork between the community college and the high school." Dru Smith, who manages and ensures the quality of the SAILS program at CSCC, sends out reports each week to educators and administrators across the state. "All the statewide reports aggregate data, but they can also show data about individual high schools and even classrooms," Squires said.

The determining factor of student success is engagement, said Denn. "If they are not successful, it is not because the conceptual framework is not right," he added. "It is because of secondary issues stopping the student from properly engaging."

Tennessee is already reaping the benefits of SAILS. "We have flipped it from 75 percent needing remediation to only 25 percent," noted Denn. From August through December of 2013, students saved 6,350 semesters of learning support (remedial math) and $3.5 million in tuition and books, according to the SAILS program. "By all the calculations," Denn said, "we think the return on investment for this program is 10 to 1."

Even though the program is still new, Denn said he and his colleagues receive calls regularly from superintendents around the country asking how to replicate it. "We share everything about what we do, including what it took to scale up," he said. "A lot of things have been tried to solve this dilemma, but we think we have found a solution and at a low cost per student."

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