The Merrillville Community School Corporation began using the Fast ForWord® program in 2011 to accelerate learning for students in grades K-8 and to support struggling learners in grades 9-12. From 2011 to 2012, students in grades 4-8 improved their Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus (ISTEP+) scores by an average of 21.9 points in English/language arts (ELA) and 27.8 points in math. Further, 78 percent of students demonstrated proficiency on the ISTEP+ ELA, achieving the highest pass rate in the district’s history.
Since the late 1990s, the Merrillville Community School Corporation in northwestern Indiana has experienced rapidly changing demographics. Fifteen years ago, 28 percent of students were minority students and 12 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. During the 2011-12 school year, 83 percent were minority students and 57 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches
“We have many disadvantaged students who do not have a stimulating educational environment at home in early childhood and, sometimes, even after they’ve started school,” said Dr. Anthony Lux, superintendent of schools. “When students are working below grade level, one year’s growth in one year’s time is simply not enough to close those gaps. The only way to catch them up is to accelerate their learning.”
Toward that end, Merrillville Community School Corporation launched the Fast ForWord program in January 2011 and added Reading Assistant software the following year.
Fast ForWord is a family of educational software products that accelerate learning by applying proven research on how the brain learns. Through individualized, adaptive exercises, students build reading, language and cognitive skills that are foundational to learning. The program supports struggling students, as well as those working at or above grade level, by improving their ability to learn and retain knowledge.
“The neuroplasticity research behind the Fast ForWord program shows that we can change the structure of the brain and increase its capacity to learn. This means that, even if students are brought up in a less stimulating environment, we can still increase their capacity to learn at any age,” said Lux. “Using the Fast ForWord program, we can stimulate the brain and help students develop their memory, attention, processing, and sequencing skills to accelerate their learning.”
In Merrillville’s five elementary schools, intermediate school and middle school, all students in grades K-8 work on the Fast ForWord program 30 to 50 minutes a day, depending on the grade level. Students are assisted in the computer lab by a lab aid and their classroom teacher. At the high school, the software is targeted to students in grades 9-12 who are struggling academically.
“Fast ForWord is different than other interventions we’ve used, in that it’s not simply a reading program,” said Lux. “It’s a program that creates actual physical changes in the brain. It enhances the brain’s capacity to capture, process and retain information, which is beneficial in reading, math, or any other subject area.”
As students advance at their own pace through the Fast ForWord products — including the Fast ForWord Language Series or Literacy Series, and the Fast ForWord Reading Series — the lab aids monitor their progress using online data analysis and reporting tools, and share that data with the classroom teachers. In addition, district and school leaders monitor student performance at the district, school, classroom and individual levels to encourage implementation fidelity and student growth.
“Every week, Scientific Learning sends me reports on all our schools and where they are in each aspect of the Fast ForWord program,” said Dr. Mark Sperling, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and personnel. “In the reports, we review our current data as well as our results over time. We also discuss the reports with school principals. Using the reports, they can then drill down to monitor the progress of all their students, so we continue to see growth at all levels.”
In summer 2012, Merrillville Community School Corporation piloted Reading Assistant software in summer school with elementary, intermediate and middle school students. The Reading Assistant program provides individualized online reading coaching for every student. It helps students rapidly strengthen vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension, maximizing their ability to read to learn.
“The feedback we received from teachers was very positive,” said Sperling. “They felt their youngsters really benefited from the additional assistance in reading and they recommended that we broaden our usage of the Reading Assistant program.”
In fall 2012, the district implemented Reading Assistant in its Title I afterschool program at all five elementary schools, the intermediate school, and the middle school. The afterschool program, which runs Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:30 to 4 p.m., provides instructional support to students who struggle in reading, ELA, and math.
In this program, students work on Reading Assistant 30 minutes a day. Reading Assistant “listens” to students as they read out loud, intervenes when the student needs help, and automatically scores students’ oral reading.
“Providing immediate feedback to every student is difficult to do in a class of 20 to 25 kids,” said Lux. “With Reading Assistant, students can record and then listen to themselves read aloud. If they stumble or have trouble pronouncing a word, the program intervenes with support. That real-time feedback and guidance helps students improve their reading fluency and reading comprehension, and it builds their confidence as readers.”
From 2011 to 2012, students in grades 4-8 made statistically significant improvements on the ISTEP+, increasing their ELA scores by an average of 21.9 points and their math scores by 27.8 points. Overall, 78 percent of students demonstrated proficiency on the ISTEP+ ELA in 2012, up from 71 percent in 2010.
|Change in scores between 2011 and 2012
|+ 7.7 points
“In 2012 in grades 4-8, we had the highest percentage of students passing the state exam that we’ve ever had,” said Lux. “At the high school, we’re also seeing increases in the percentage of students passing the state exams.”
Historical data show that, despite the large demographic changes in the district, the achievement gap is narrowing. At the time of the 2007 administration of the ISTEP+, minority students comprised 74 percent of the district’s student population and the achievement gap between minority students and Caucasian students was 17.5 percent. During the 2011-2012 school year, minority students comprised 83 percent of the student population, and the achievement gap narrowed to 11.5 percent.
“We hold all of our students to high performance expectations and we provide a variety of resources and interventions to help all our students learn and achieve at the highest levels,” said Sperling. “In each of our buildings, our staff are outstanding and we have strong parent support. As a result, we’re experiencing some of the highest achievement levels we’ve ever seen in the district.”
In addition to showing statistically significant improvements on the ISTEP+, students improved their Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores. During the 2011-12 school year, the SRI was administered three times to students in grades 2-8, and twice to students in high school. In the eight-and-a-half months between assessments, students improved an average of 118 Lexiles. The average improvements ranged from 45 Lexiles for 11th graders to 280 Lexiles for 2nd graders. Further, students in grades 2-6 and grades 8-11 improved their scores significantly more than expected, based on the SRI norms.
“We’re seeing improvements in individual schools as well. Merrillville High School and Salk Elementary are both national finalists for the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) School Award, in recognition of students’ academic success. And, Salk Elementary is one of the Indiana schools nominated for the 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools Program,” said Lux.
“In all our schools, we have a variety of programs and interventions that have contributed to our success,” he continued. “We believe Fast ForWord has substantially accelerated the increase in student achievement for Merrillville students. The combination of improving the mental operations of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing skills — in connection with a strong literacy program — has enabled students to learn more quickly and to a higher degree. There’s no other program that addresses these cognitive skills more directly than Fast ForWord.”