How It Happened Over The Last Two Years 

By Tim Cannon and Expect More Arizona 

“Why do I need to learn this?” “I’m never going to use this in real life!” “I can’t do this!” All of these statements are heard nearly every day by math teachers. 

But what students might not realize is that strong math skills are both useful in daily life, and they can help build critical thinking and analytical skills. What’s more, research has shown that eighth-graders who are proficient in math are far more likely than their peers to graduate from high school. 

It’s why the Arizona Education Progress Meter has set a goal to improve eighth-grade math proficiency to 69 percent, and it’s why leaders at South Valley Junior High (SVJH) in Gilbert Public Schools knew they had to make changes to improve math learning at their school. 

Starting two years ago, teachers implemented a variety of changes aimed at helping students get to the next level. By breaking down the standards and helping students become familiar with the style and vocabulary of AzMERIT testing, SVJH has succeeded in creating more confident and grounded students. By integrating Performance Level Descriptors (PLDs given by AZ Department of Education), SVJH helped to inform students of their academic expectations. Pupils were given a clear roadmap and a copy of the standards, which were referred to regularly to help keep everyone focused on the same goal. 

While a typical math class might include 30 minutes of direct instruction, 10 minutes of guided work, and 10 minutes of homework, classes at SVJH sought to turn that on its head and give students more time in small groups for discovery-based learning, time to practice new skills inside the classroom, and more direct communication with their teachers. 

But beyond classroom time, teachers sought ways to give students more frequent and detailed feedback. Coursework and assessments were changed to be graded with color-coded labels instead of percentages: 

  • Orange: The student made a simple math error. 
  • Yellow: The answer is wrong. 
  • Blue: The student needs to show more work, give more details in an explanation, or simplify. 
  • Green: The student did not answer the question at all or complete it. 
  • Pink: The student did not follow directions to answer the question correctly. 

With time, students began to recognize there was a pattern to their mistakes and how to correct them. By understanding their specific errors, youth were able to engage in academic conversations and improve future work. 

Knowing that all students learn at their own pace, teachers afford students the opportunity to re-test and re-do work. Beyond getting the correct answer, students needed to be able to articulate how they got there which is why many math problems are followed by the statement, “Explain.” After all, understanding why you’re successful is just as important as success itself. 

Homework has changed as well. With fewer, more challenging problems, it is no longer completed for a grade. Instead, it is a time to truly practice and reflect on the concepts knowing that there will be time given in class to discuss any issues with a partner the following day. While some were concerned that students would simply opt out of the homework since it wasn’t for a grade, that hasn’t been the case at all. Homework completion has been viewed by students as a necessary component, much like bringing a pencil or coming to class prepared and being a good partner. 

The approach has had a huge impact. Students increasingly view themselves as active participants in the learning process and view assessments as a valuable way to measure their own progress. Even among traditionally high performing students, such as those in honors courses, growth has been substantial. Among all eighth graders, the school saw over 75 percent growth last year, which was substantially higher than the district average. And those taking Algebra I their growth exceeded 80 percent with 98.2 percent proficiency rate.