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Baltimore County Schools Get an Edge in Algebra

Cognitive Tutor boosts middle school scores by a factor of three

Achallenge at a handful of Title I middle schools in the Baltimore County Public School (BCPS) system three years ago was to figure out a way to help underperforming math students, says Patricia Baltzley, Director of Mathematics Pre K-12.

“For three out of four of our Title I middle schools, we had final exam data that showed our students weren’t performing up to par,” she recalls. “We had tried different approaches but, really, the algebra scores were not improving at these schools. In fact, nothing we were doing with our curriculum was getting the scores to move until we introduced Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor Algebra software program.”

'The software
component permits
students to work at
their own pace.'

“The Cognitive Tutor Algebra software program was part of a systemwide, data-based enhancement of the county’s curriculum under the leadership of BCPS Superintendent Dr. Joe A. Hairston and Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Christine Johns. Using high-tech software to supplement curriculum improvements, the school system has focused on attaining across-theboard student achievement among even the most challenging pupil populations.”

“The result,” she adds, “is that the scores of our final exams have climbed tremendously from a 26-percent pass rate to an 80-percent pass rate. It’s been a godsend to those students. We have also seen a significant improvement in the pass rate for Algebra on our state assessments. In fact, at these three schools, there was an average increase of 20% more students passing the high school assessment in Algebra in 2004 than in 2003.”

With the software-based program, the Baltimore County middle school students receive the benefits of a problem solving approach to Algebra I, individualized, computerized instruction, ample practice, immediate feedback and coaching. "Just-in-time" help, "Ondemand" help, and positive reinforcement put students in control of their own learning and help to keep them on task. This supports better classroom interaction too, because teachers can spend more time with students who need additional intervention.

“It is a very motivating program, very problem based,” says Baltzley. “Its approach makes it very real and interactive for the kids. They deal with a problem that unfolds and use more and more of the algebra as they progress. This program approaches Algebra from a different viewpoint that requires more hands-on experiences and more cooperative learning.”

But the Cognitive Tutor is more than just a high-tech software program that keeps students tied to the computer screen. Each curriculum — including Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Integrated Math Series and Quantitative Literacy Through Algebra — combines software-based, individualized computer lessons with collaborative, real-world problem-solving activities. Students spend only about 40 percent of their class time using the software, and the balance of their time engaged in a whole class, problem-solving mathematics curriculum.

The software component allows students to work at their own pace. The system is built on cognitive models, which represent the knowledge a student might possess about a given subject. The software assesses the prior mathematical knowledge of students on a step-by-step basis and presents curricula tailored to their individual skill levels.

Significantly, the program is suited for all students, says Baltzley. At the three middle schools where the program has been implemented, all students — from academic classes to gifted-and-talented students to special education classes — are using and benefiting from the program, she says. “The computer labs are always packed after school with students working on the Cognitive Tutor,” she says.

One reason is that the textbook and classroom activities parallel and extend the development of concepts in the software, emphasizing written analyses and classroom presentations. Students engage in problem solving and reasoning, and communicate using multiple representations of math concepts. The textbook provides an opportunity for analysis, extended investigation, and the exploration of alternate solution paths.

“We have implemented the program at two of our high schools and are considering implementing the program in other schools where it’s needed, not just the Title I schools,” says Baltzley. “It makes a lot of sense.”

For more information, contact Ingrid Ellerbe,