Gauging the Effect of “Accelerated Math”

By Sean Cavanagh — September 30, 2008 2 min read
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Accelerated Math, a software tool for middle school math used in an estimated 30,000 schools nationwide, has been found to have “no discernable effect” on student achievement by federal officials who studied the program.

That review was completed by the What Works Clearinghouse, an online source of independent reviews of education programs, which is run by the Institute for Education Sciences, the top research office of the U.S. Department of Education.

The clearinghouse, which was created by the department in 2002, sets a high bar for judging the effectiveness of education programs in math and other subject areas. It favors programs that have been reviewed through what it sees as rigorously conducted experiments, such as randomized control trials, in which a program or practice is randomly assigned and studied as a treatment or control group. Those lofty standards and the resultant negative findings sometimes lead critics to refer to it as the “Nothing Works” Clearinghouse.

The WWC says no studies of Accelerated Math met its evidence standards outright, but that three studies met them with reservations. Those studies looked at the program’s performance with 2,200 students in grades 6-8. The program, which is published by Renaissance Learning, was found to have no discernable effect on student learning; the WWC rates interventions as positive; potentially positive; mixed; no discernable effects; potentially negative, or negative.

Accelerated Math’s software creates individualized student assignments aligned with state standards and national guidelines; it scores student work and generates reports on student progress, according to a description by the WWC.

It should be noted that several popular elementary and middle school math programs have not fared any better than Accelerated Math when reviewed by the WWC. You can look at the reviews of middle school programs here, and elementary school programs here.

I called officials at Renaissance Learning to get their response to the clearinghouse’s review. They made several points.

They noted that Accelerated Math has been studied extensively, and that other studies have shown more positive results than the WWC did. Three of the studies named in the WWC review met the clearinghouse’s evidence standards, albeit with reservations, demonstrated the scrutiny the program has faced already, they argued. Those three studies showed positive effects from the program—but not when they were put through the WWC review process, noted Laurie Borkon, the vice president for public affairs for Renaissance.

The strength of Accelerated Math is that it offers middle school teachers a useful “practice mechanism” for working with students of all ability levels, said Roy Truby, Renaissance’s vice president for state and federal programs. He did not think the WWC review would have any impact on the program’s popularity. Truby, incidentally, is a former executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

“Teachers have found it to work effectively, all around the country,” Truby said. “The real proof is that teachers use it and see positive effects.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.