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MathFest Research

Program Leader.   

The Principal Director, Dr. Ron Boykins, brings 26 years of experience as a former school district superintendent and building principal achieving turnaround of 5 low-performing schools and a school district.  Dr. Boykins also holds the role of National Director for the MathFest Program with the National School Improvement Alliance, having successfully engaged over 40,000 students since its inception.  



Why MathFest?    

Back in 2007, Dr. Boykins, the principal of a high minority elementary school in Georgia, sought ways to enhance math achievement among students.  He decided to implement a strategy involving competitive events to spark students’ interest and excitement in math.  Consequently, he created the NSIA MathFest, a competition aimed at fostering students’ math skills.  The results were remarkable, with his school’s math achievement on the state assessment in GA increasing by over 40%. Over the following decade, the NSIA MathFest flourished, attracting over 35,000 students to participate in the event by 2015.  Through an extensive review of the MathFest Program, the team initially identified seven key components thought to influence the achievement of students in math.  However, the review process led them to focus on three major components that have been well-documented in the research literature for their positive effects on all students, especially minorities. By isolating and understanding these impactful components, the team has worked to provide effective ideas that educators can utilize to improve the math achievement for all students.   By analyzing these variables, the team can provide actionable insights and best practices for educators and policymakers, promoting effective instructional strategies that enhance learning outcomes for students, especially those from diverse backgrounds.  By examining how specific educational components affect students, the team aims to show interventions that can support the academic success and positive experiences of students.  These events can shed light on how educational interventions can not only improve academic performance but can also shape students’ perceptions and attitudes toward math and learning in general. The overall goal of the MathFest program is to foster more equitable and inclusive learning environments for all students.  By producing these motivational concepts, the team shows ways to create a supportive and empowering educational setting for all students, regardless of their background.  


The three components that dominate the execution of the MathFest Program are Immediate Feedback (continued improvement and advantage students receive based on receiving immediate feedback during the events), Collaborative Group Impact (examining the benefits of small group interactions in completing critical thinking questions), and the Efficacy in Testing Students’

Success Beliefs (students’ beliefs before the events, and the potential growth in their attitudes and self-perceptions afterward).   


Review of Literature.   

Immediate Feedback.    

            Feedback can be a powerful tool in learning. As with most great powers, it can be used to have a positive or negative impact. Feedback is defined as “information provided by an agent (ex.: teacher, peer, book, parent) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding” and can rely on more affective processes (ex.: increased engagement or motivation) or cognitive processes (ex.: restructuring understandings, indicating alternative strategies; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Feedback is meant to reduce discrepancies between current and desired understandings. Winne and Butler (1994, as cited in Hattie & Timperley, 2007) produced the following comprehensive definition of feedback: “information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune, or restructure information in memory, whether that information is domain knowledge, meta-cognitive knowledge, beliefs about self and tasks, or cognitive tactics and strategies.” A meta-analysis (N = 435 studies) conducted by Wisniewski et al. (2020) revealed a medium effect (d = .48) of feedback on student learning and, more importantly, emphasized that feedback cannot be understood as a single, consistent type of treatment. There are many factors that can potentially influence the impact of feedback, including the type of feedback given and how much information is conveyed. Considering that research has already identified several moderating factors in the relationship between feedback and achievement, it is entirely possible for race to also moderate this effect.   

Immediate feedback, which is feedback given immediately following a task, is typically provided by a computer-supported program. Razzaq et al. (2020) examined the use of computer based learning (ASSISTments) in the classroom and the effect of immediate feedback on student performance. The study used a sample of 243 10th and 11th-grade math students with the following demographic breakdown: 42.6% Hispanic, 30.2% white, 15.9% African American, 7.1% Asian, and 4.2% multi-race/non-Hispanic. In addition, the student population from which the sample was drawn exhibited the following characteristics: 55% identified their first language as one other than English, 33.4% are English Learners (EL), 18.8% have disabilities, 77.5% are considered high needs, and 59.5% are economically disadvantaged. The results showed that students in the feedback group performed significantly better at the post-test than those in the control condition and these learning gains were observed for both low and high-prior-knowledge students, although low-prior-knowledge students did experience greater gains on average. These results are noteworthy considering the diverse sample. Similar results were found in a study by Manuel (2019) using a sample of 53 11th-grade students. The sample was drawn from a student school population with the following demographic breakdown: 51% African American, 41% white, 4% Hispanic, 1% Asian, and 3% mixed races. Following an 18-week intervention, the math achievement of students who received immediate feedback was significantly greater than those in the control group. Another study by Salvo et al. (2019) revealed that many African-American male undergraduate students referenced the lack of immediate feedback as a common challenge.  

Research by Yeager et al. (2014) explored the significance of trust in the successful delivery of critical feedback. Given many reasons (harsher disciplinary treatment, colder social treatment, patronizing praise, etc.), it is understandable that African American students would be at risk for developing a stronger mistrust of mainstream institutions, such as schools. The use of “wise feedback” (feedback designed to lessen mistrust by informing students their teacher holds them to a high standard and believes in their ability to reach those standards) increased students’ likelihood of submitting a revised essay and improved the quality of their final drafts. These effects were generally stronger among African-American students and particularly strong among African  

American students with high levels of distrust towards school. The use of “attributional retraining” (a method of helping people to draw more constructive conclusions about the causes of their successes and failures) led to an increase in African American students’ grades. These results are encouraging and suggest more effective ways of delivering in-person critical feedback, especially for minority students. Further, this study emphasizes the crucial role trust plays in the relationship between feedback and minority student achievement.  

         There are also certain factors associated with the agent delivering feedback that can impact black students’ achievement. For example, research by Croft and Schmader (2012) in which the feedback and grades given to minority versus white student essays were compared demonstrated that evaluators gave less criticism and higher grades to Black than white students. This feedback withholding bias was strongest for evaluators who “have not internalized egalitarian goals but feel pressure from society to conform to politically correct standards of non-biased behavior” (pg. 1143). These results suggest that minority students sometimes fail to receive appropriate critical feedback necessary to improve academic achievement, especially when evaluators are concerned about appearing prejudiced. The feedback withholding bias can have serious implications for black students’ learning and achievement, including setting and maintaining low standards which further prevent skill mastery.  

         Overall, current research suggests there are many influencing factors in the relationship between feedback and black students’ achievement. While there is concrete evidence for the positive effect of immediate feedback on black students’ achievement, strong levels of mistrust in academic institutions and authorities and evaluators’ fear of appearing racist can moderate this impact. When culturally/racially sensitive interventions are used (ex.: wise feedback), African American students experience greater benefits. Future research should investigate potential interventions or strategies that can encourage evaluators to internalize egalitarian goals, so that they may be spared from the feedback withholding bias. Another potential topic of interest is whether technology access mediates the relationship between feedback and minority achievement.   


Collaborative Learning.    

There are several ways in which diversity can facilitate and inhibit learning. The unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits of each individual is the result of many interacting forces, including cultural background. Mubenga (2006) summarized several positive assets associated with African Americans that may encourage learning, those which particularly benefit from group or collaborative learning include: an apparent preference for cooperative learning, as well as working with people and in groups. Due to these preferences, it seems obvious that collaborative learning would benefit black students. But, as is pointed out in several research papers, when teachers fail to embrace cultural diversity, both in their students and in their teaching curriculum, academic achievement slips further away (Gordon & Nieto, 1992, as cited in Mubenga, 2006). In order for collaborative learning to effectively work for children of diverse backgrounds, educators and fellow peers must also make efforts to embrace diversity. Educators must be willing to alter their teaching paradigms to suit diverse students and intelligence, as well as encourage collaboration and communication throughout the classroom. When such efforts are made, the results are outstanding.  

         Some earlier research has been conducted by Robert Slavin. In a 1982 review summarizing work on the effects of cooperative learning, “outstandingly positive effects” (pg. 23) on black students’ achievement was found in three out of four studies discussed. Overall, the review concluded that when the classroom is structured in a way that garners cooperation on learning tasks, students benefit academically and socially. Cooperative learning only works if everyone is involved, and it appears that everyone can benefit from cooperative learning, as well. According to Webb and Farvier (1994, as cited in Slavin et al., 2012), after receiving training in academic helping skills, greater achievement and helping behaviors were seen among Latino and African American students, but not White or Asian students. Overall, the research discussed in the 2012 paper can be summarized as such: there are well-established pronounced effects of cooperative learning for African American students, as well as a positive association between their achievement and cooperative learning techniques.  

         Regarding elementary-aged children: Vaughan (2002) examined the effects of cooperative learning on math achievement and attitudes in a group of 5th grade students of color (18/21 were black students) in Bermuda. Two measures were used: the CAT Form E Level 14 (math achievement) and Peterson’s (1978) Attitude Toward Mathematics Scale for Grades 4-6 Students (math attitudes). Participants completed 12 weeks of Slavin’s Student Teams Achievement Division (STAD) cooperative learning training in mathematics. The results revealed positive effects on both math achievement and attitudes. A review by Arendale (2004) compared six different postsecondary peer collaborative learning programs: Accelerated Learning Groups (ALGs), Emerging Scholars Program (ESP), Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), Structured Learning Assistance (SLA), Supplemental Instruction (SI), and Video-based Supplemental Instruction (VSI). Overall, it was found that such programs are associated with better student outcomes, including increasing student persistence towards graduation. Across several research studies, ESP was associated with increased exam performance in biology in undergraduate nontraditional students (ex.: African American, Hispanic) and better grades in African American college math students.  

         Positive early experience with math opportunities has the potential to set up children for success. It has been shown that early math knowledge is a strong predictor of success, and the racial disparities in math achievement present at kindergarten entry remain largely throughout formal education years (Duncan et al., 2007; Friedman-Krauss, 2016; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2015; as cited in Davis et al., 2018). Thus, it is especially necessary for educators to encourage and support mathematics learning in children of racially diverse backgrounds. According to Davis et al. (2018), African American boys are especially at risk for negative math experiences due to a commonly held misperception that their overrepresentation in negative educational outcomes (and underrepresentation in positive educational outcomes) is because of innate differences in ability. This further suggests the significance of early intervention.

Coupled with findings on the benefits of collaborative learning in black students, the literature suggests that the use of collaborative learning programs, especially early in life, fosters positive effects on student achievement in several subjects and attitudes towards math. In addition, this is not specific to only African American children, as children of other racial backgrounds have experienced similar benefits.   


Student Success Beliefs    

Generally speaking, self-concepts of ability play key roles in achievement and decision-making (Eccles, 1994; Eccles and Wigfield, 2002; Wang and Degol, 2013; as cited in Diemer et al., 2016).  They are also domain-specific, such that individuals have differentiated self-concepts of ability for math, reading, and so on (Davis-Kean et al., 2008; Sáinz and Eccles, 2012; as cited in Diemer et al., 2016). Past research has demonstrated that certain cognitive variables (ex: ability-related and expectancy beliefs, general attitudes towards school, attitudes toward specific academic subjects) which are related to academic performance can vary across gender and racial groups (Ekstrom, 1994; House, 1997; Wigfield & Eccles, 1990; as cited in Linnehan, 2001). Race can have a unique impact on academic performance: such group differences have been partially attributed to internal factors (ex.: unique cultural values and characteristics) and external factors (ex.: teacher expectations, experiences with and/or perceptions of discrimination; Blair et al., 1999; Mickelson, 1990; as cited in Linnehan, 2001). The rest of this paper will be dedicated to the potential external factors that can influence success beliefs and math achievement in students of color.   

 Scheurich (1998) observed the culture and organizational structure of highly successful elementary schools mostly populated by low-socioeconomic-status (SES) students of color. He identified five core beliefs that were necessary to these schools’ success: all children can succeed at high academic levels; child/learner-centered schools are most effective; all children must be treated with love, appreciation, care, and respect; the racial culture of the child is always highly valued; and the school exists for and serves the community. Scheurich also identified seven organizational culture characteristics present in these schools: a strong, shared vision; loving, caring environments for children and adults; strong collaboration; innovation and openness to new ideas; “hardworking but not burning out” (pg. 472); appropriate conduct; and schoolwide accountability for students’ success. This paper is significant for several reasons. First, the benefits associated with this model of schooling suggest the significance of external factors in students of color’s success beliefs and academic achievement. In addition, this paper highlights the flaws of traditional schooling: the fact that there is an alternative schooling model that consistently works suggests an issue with our current schooling system, not a problem with the students. Educators continue to rely on racist justifications regarding why students of color are underachieving, but the reality is that “educators have ways, a model, to provide high levels of academic success to literally all children, regardless of their race or class” (pg. 477).  

 Taking a closer look at external factors: a research study by Love and Kruger (2005) observed the relationship between teachers’ culturally relevant beliefs and student achievement. Past research studies have established certain traits associated with successful teachers of African American children, but the current study intended to focus on whether teachers’ culturally relevant beliefs influence African American students’ achievement. The researchers designed two different studies to sample the beliefs of teachers within six urban schools (study 1) and then correlated those beliefs with their students’ achievement measured by math, reading, and language arts standardized tests (study 2). The survey used in study 1 included 48 statements which fell into six dimensions of related beliefs: knowledge; student’s race, ethnicity, and culture; social relations in and beyond the classroom; teaching as a profession; teaching practice; and students’ needs and strengths. In study 2, these survey items were correlated with the standardized achievement scores of 1,432 students taught by 50/244 teachers that were used in study 1.   

The results of study 1 revealed that the educational professionals surveyed endorsed beliefs regarding a communal learning environment, success of all students, teaching as giving back to the community, and the importance of students’ ethnicity. These results mirror some of the core beliefs presented by Scheurich (1998). Interestingly, while participants did believe in the importance of students’ race, culture, and ethnicity in their teaching, they also affirmed the two “colorblind” statements, meaning that they did not distinguish students’ color or culture but “saw just children”

(pg. 95). While there are potentially innocent reasons for ignoring differences in the classroom (ex.: wanting to appear fair), doing so ultimately harms children. Results from study 2 showed that 9/48 statements correlated with some measure of student achievement: one statement from the knowledge dimension, four from the social relations dimension, one from teaching as a profession dimension, two from the teaching practice dimension, and one from the students’ needs and strengths dimension. Further, it was found that two beliefs from the social relations dimension, one from the teaching practices dimension, and one from the student’s needs and strengths dimension were significantly correlated with students’ math achievement. In conclusion, no items concerning race, culture, or ethnicity were correlated with student achievement. Despite this, the current study provides a solid foundation for future research.   

Cherng (2017) also explored the role of the classroom teacher in student achievement:  Specifically, whether teacher underestimates (beliefs that students are struggling in class when student test scores are average or higher) are associated with students’ expectations and GPA, and if these relationships are more or less important for students of color. The current study used data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), a nationally representative study of US high school sophomores in 2002. Results showed that both English and math teachers were more likely to perceive their classes as being too difficult for students of color. Even after controlling for math test scores, homework completion, and other factors, math teachers consistently perceived their class as being too difficult for Latino and Black students. In addition, both English and math teacher’s underestimation of student ability in the 10th grade was associated with lower 12th-grade expectations and 10th-grade GPAs. This relationship was moderated by race, such that students of color were significantly negatively impacted. Although negative, the relationship between teacher underestimations and GPA for Black students was weaker than for Latino students. Cherng suggests this is due to a resistance strategy seemingly unique to Black students: “It may be that Black students who perceive that they are underestimated by teachers also work harder to challenge teachers’ assumptions of their abilities, which can help offset the negative influence of underestimations on immediate achievement” (pg. 181). Ultimately, this paper suggests that educational professionals are subject to bias and subject-specific racial stereotypes, and such issues should be addressed and discussed openly during training and professional development.   

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