Increase Readiness Among Middle School Students with Personalized Learning

June 12, 2017

This time of year, I can’t help but think of the many middle school students who will soon advance to high school. The troubling truth is that many of these students are underprepared for the rigors of high school coursework.

Weak foundations and gaps in prerequisite skills and concepts put many students at risk of course failure in the 9th grade. These weak foundations can trigger a house-of-cards effect. Students who experience early and reinforcing patterns of failure may lose motivation and hope to graduate. Without effective support, they’ll fall further and further behind and become more likely to drop out of school.

It’s important that districts identify middle school students who need intervention and take steps to get them back on grade level and really ready for high school. One of those steps is to implement a personalized learning program supported by digital curriculum. The digital curriculum must have the capacity to equitably maintain high levels of rigor for all students while providing a system of support to:

  • Prepare middle school students for high school success
  • Remediate underprepared learners
  • Increase instructional capacity to support all learners


The Middle School Achievement Gap

Making the transition from middle to high school is a big transition in more ways than one. Students’ academic workloads increase. Students gain independence, but also responsibility. There’s a social aspect to the transition, too. Students from multiple middle schools often converge to form larger class cohorts in bigger schools with more teachers. 

The traditional model of instruction treats all of these students the same. It assumes that all students learn in the same way and at the same pace. It doesn’t take into account circumstances that might cause students to miss critical information in class. Students have “off” days, for example, where paying attention is a challenge. They might get sick. They might miss class due to suspension or expulsion. Or, they might feel disengaged — that they can’t connect with their teachers or understand the real-world connection to their coursework.

When students miss critical information, they begin to develop learning weaknesses. The more a student is absent or falls behind, the bigger and more problematic those weaknesses become. Very soon, weak foundations in prerequisite skills crumble into large achievement gaps that only worsen as students progress through middle school to high school. In the U.S., these gaps are particularly wide in Algebra I and English I. Nationally, 33 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level on 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessments; 34 percent performed at or above the same level on 2015 NAEP reading assessments.

Consequences of the Middle School Achievement Gap

These two courses, Algebra I and English I, are considered gateways to high school success. Students who are underprepared for the concepts and skills taught in these classes often find themselves unable to access and learn new grade-level concepts.

We know that student achievement correlates with students’ levels of engagement and motivation. Failure can have a detrimental impact. When students fail repeatedly, they may not see a way to recover. They may begin to feel like their hard work isn’t paying off, which can lead them to believe they’ll never succeed no matter what efforts they make. This, in turn, hinders motivation and can keep a student from working to achieve learning goals.

If students aren’t working hard to meet their learning goals, achievement gaps widen. These achievement gaps contribute to declines in graduation and in college- and career-readiness assessment scores. In fact, middle school achievement gaps significantly lower the likelihood that students will graduate at all. For those who do graduate, many must take remedial English and mathematics coursework before they are eligible to begin college credit-bearing coursework or certificate programs.

Improve Student Outcomes with Personalized Learning

If districts and schools continue to teach to grade-level standards without remediating learning gaps and increasing proficiency levels, many students will continue to struggle accessing grade-level work as they progress through high school courses. However, it is difficult for already overburdened teachers to teach grade-level course content while also providing individual students with personalized instruction to overcome and remediate learning gaps.

Leveraging digital curriculum, particularly digital curriculum with tools like Adaptive Tutorials, supports teachers in differentiating instruction to meet each student’s needs so that they are prepared for grade-level instruction. It also allows students to determine their own pathways of instruction, allowing them to master both remedial and grade-level content at their own pace.

When considering a digital curriculum to support personalization and better prepare middle school students for the rigors of high school coursework, look for solutions with:

  • Prescriptive assessment to identify individual mastery of prerequisite and grade-level skills and concepts. Use prescriptive assessment data to monitor progress and growth and to drive instruction.
  • Adaptive remediation to create personalized learning plans for every student. This plan offers instruction and practice in areas where a student needs support.
  • Systems of support to help students succeed and close achievement gaps. Supports and scaffolding might include:
    • Varied methods of instruction so students can learn course content many times and in many ways
    • Active learning models that keep learners engaged with age-appropriate content, and student-controlled navigation that appeals to students’ need for variety, context and control over their learning
    • Contextual learning in the form of real-world examples, scenarios and word problems
    • Built-in tools students can access within instruction, such as vocabulary support and hints to support problem solving
    • Real-time formative feedback that helps students learn from their work or responses to questions
    • Actionable progress and performance data teachers can use to monitor individual students and inform instruction for the whole class, small groups and individual students


Apex Learning’s digital curriculum and Adaptive Tutorials can help ensure that middle school students are not only ready for high school, but also prepared for the next exam, the next course and the next steps in college and their careers. We offer Adaptive Tutorials designed specifically for middle school students in grades 6-8 that and are proven to help them master grade-level content before advancing to high school.  



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