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Students Who Struggle to Keep their Grades Up - Homework Grades High, Test Grades Low - What Should this Tell You?

Struggling to Keep Up, but Not REALLY Learning, Takes Its Toll On Students Attention & Energy. What Does This REALLY mean??? WHAT can be done?

Students who maintain average grades, but appear to be expending an excessive amount of time and effort to maintain those grades may have underlying learning deficits. As educators, we shouldn't overlook the fact that students who require more time for completing assignments seem to show a disparity between what they have learned in class and how they perform on high stakes assessments (such as tests that cover larger amounts of material and usually require students to comprehend the skills and concepts they have covered in class to a higher degree than homework). 

Homework Grades vs Test Grades

Lower grades on tests, as compared to homework, points to a general lack of overall understanding. They may be working hard on all of their homework, turning everything in on time, and even trying their very best. However, they may in fact be struggling with various learning challenges such as weakness in memory function, inability to process large volumes of information, vocabulary deficits and poor abilities in written expression.

Working with University of Central Florida Communications Disorders doctoral candidate Janet Proly, I had the opportunity to collaborate on a single-subject designed study of three promising high school students who appeared to be successful in their classes but also had significant hidden learning deficits.

The three students, twin 10th-grade boys in a general education program and a 12th-grade student who attended a magnet health and science academy, expressed concern over their struggle to keep up with their respective workloads of studying, reading and comprehending assignments, and their performance on tests like the FCAT. All reported that it took them three times the amount of actual time to complete their homework, citing that they had to re-read assignments multiple times in order to master the information.

This inefficient learning caused all three boys to receive lower than expected scores on the state assessment, possibly compromising their ability to obtain a standard high school diploma. All three students approached me to inquire about participating in a summer reading program hosted by Bridges Academy, and thus became candidates for our collaborative study on the impact of improving reading fluency using computer technology for intervention.Proly and I structured a single subject design study to determine the impact of using computer technology formulated to improve processing and working memory, as well as oral reading fluency. We modeled our study after the 2010 study published by Wexler, Vaughn, Roberts, and Denton.[i]

The school offered a summer program to the three students. Using the Fast ForWord Literacy and Reading Assistant products for the six-week planned intervention would address recommendations for an alternative fluency intervention with a higher degree of intensity, and the inclusion of interventions that focus on processing. After an initial assessment, the students participated in the intervention. We conducted a post-intervention assessment, and then assessed the students once again six months after the intervention. All three students demonstrated significant improvement in their reading fluency, and gains of more than two years on average in word attack and comprehension skills. The three students sustained these gains even though all three were no longer receiving any support or intervention.

This study, along with the focus on adolescent literacy, has increased interest in addressing the needs of middle and high school students who report these kinds of challenges in three specific programs: the UCF Communications Disorders Clinic; the UCF Communications Disorders Doctoral Program; and the Bridges Academy private school. As our results indicate, these short term computer interventions, through focusing on working memory, reading fluency and processing speed, have significant potential to help capable students succeed both in classes and on annual assessments.

In 2008 alone, over 20,000 high school students in the state of Florida dropped out of the public high school program. Did they leave because it was simply too hard to keep up? Could we have kept them in school if we had been able to provide a short term intervention that could not only have engaged them, but improved their learning and achievement? My collaborators and I all believe the answer to both of these questions is, absolutely, yes.

So what comes next? Our plan is to work together on an expanded study for the 2011-12 academic year that will take place at the private school and the UCF Communications Disorders Clinic. In reaching more participants, our plan – and our hope – is to continue to demonstrate program effectiveness and change the lives of more students for the better.