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Visual math program leads to huge test score gains in LA

MIND Research Institute’s language-free ST Math spurs excitement in learning

Educators at the Los Angeles United School District face a unique challenge. The second largest school district in the country is home to more than 670,000 students and 1,092 school campuses where more than 100 languages are spoken.

“The overwhelming majority of students who do not have proficiency in English language arts are living in circumstances of extreme poverty,” said John Deasy, LAUSD’s superintendent. “Those situations historically pose big challenges,” he added, particularly when it comes to teaching math—a subject in which those students have historically had extremely low achievement scores.

Improving math scores for students in Los Angeles whose native language isn’t English was a driving factor behind the district’s implementation of ST Math, a computer-based supplemental math program that is primarily language  independent. Developed by the MIND Research Institute, a non-profit organization in California, the program is founded on many years of neuroscience and education research.

“The program doesn’t rely on a student’s proficiency in a particular language as a pre-requisite for math comprehension,” said Deasy.

The K-8 program’s visual approach to math instruction is incorporated into self-paced activities that align to state standards and complement any textbook. Students work on a series of animated games that have no verbal or written instructions; instead, the program is based on a visual, conceptual and problem-solving approach. Activities are hosted by JiJi the penguin, who silently indicates if a student has succeeded in a game by confidently crossing a little bridge.

In 2010, the Math Initiative, a program funded by local philanthropic groups, invited LAUSD elementary schools to apply for grants to use ST Math in grades 2 and 3. The invitation was limited to those schools that had posted the lowest math test scores based on California’s Academic Performance Index.

Over the school year, teachers in schools admitted to the program introduced students to ST Math, which seamlessly blended with teacher-led instruction. Students independently moved through math concepts by winning their way through increasingly difficult math puzzles. Students’ incorrect answers were provided instant feedback via the program’s visual animations. As students reached more challenging levels, they were required to think ahead to solve the problem.

“You cannot escape how engaged students are when you pass through classrooms.”

By the end of the 2011 school year, participating students showed “a substantial increase in math comprehension,” said Deasy. For schools that enrolled 80 percent of their students—a total of 46 schools or nearly 10,000 students—test scores climbed.

Slightly more than 62 percent of students scored at proficient or advanced levels of math achievement on the California Standards Test, compared with a year earlier when only 48.7 percent of this group of students scored at these levels. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that students who scored at the advanced level accounted for more than 10 points of the 13.6-point improvement. Indeed, the proficiency gains of ST Math students far outstripped the improvement in proficiency made by non-participating students.

“You cannot escape how engaged students are when you pass through classrooms,” noted Deasy, who said he’s seen students talking among themselves about JiJi the penguin when using the instructional tool. “Students have a sense of success and efficiency, and just feel very happy about doing math,” he added.

“This program is very well done, very strongly supported,” Deasy said. “It’s highly performance supported. It has high quality programming and high quality professional development. I have a very high assessment of it.”

For more information about ST Math, please visit