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IES Learning Acceleration Challenges

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | December 14, 2021

Early next year, IES plans to announce two new prize competitions: one to incentivize innovation in middle school science instruction and another to improve mathematics achievement for elementary students with disabilities.

As with any prize competition, we hope to spur new thinking about how to improve student performance and encourage the participation of developers and program providers who are willing to systematically test the effectiveness of their interventions. We anticipate a grand prize of around $1 million, along with smaller "adjacent prizes" for superior performance in subcategories, such as outcomes for certain student populations, exceptional cost effectiveness, or out-of-school-time interventions with the greatest impact.

We'll share more details closer to the official rollout, but I want to put this information out now, so that program providers, developers, and researchers can start planning for participation in the competitions. We also appreciate hearing from organizations, developers, and others who have strong, evidence-based interventions, since—especially regarding middle school science—IES needs a clearer view of what is "out there." (We are planning to put out a formal RFI soon to elicit this information—but interested parties could respond to this blog as well.)

In this blog, I discuss the challenges and some of the truly disturbing data motivating them.

The Middle Grades Science Challenge

Science achievement is weak among American students. In 2019, 69% of Black students, 56% of Hispanic students, and 71% of students with disabilities scored below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in grade 12. Without improving science performance, the nation will never have the strong, diverse STEM workforce needed to meet the challenges of our technology-centered future.

For students and young adults to access the postsecondary and workforce opportunities that require a strong foundation in science, they must first become scientifically literate by the time they finish high school—but achieving that goal requires that we start early and give special attention to those students struggling the most. For this reason, this prize will focus on interventions that improve the performance of students who score in the lowest quartile of performance on a baseline assessment as measured by an adaptive, psychometrically-sound, and widely used measure of science achievement.

This prize also signals our intention to invest more resources in improving science education. Historically, IES has invested far more resources in math and reading (largely because IES was established around the same time as No Child Left Behind, which emphasized those subjects) than in science. But we believe that, given the abysmal NAEP results and importance of STEM education, IES must turn more attention to improving science education and performance.

The Elementary Mathematics Challenge

Many students with disabilities struggle with mathematics. In 2019, 54% of fourth graders with disabilities scored below basic on the NAEP mathematics assessment, compared to 15% of students without disabilities. This achievement gap grows in later grades and has worsened over the last decade. In response, IES is launching a math challenge focused on supporting students with disabilities in the upper elementary grades.

Fourth grade is critical. Students entering fourth grade with poor whole number knowledge are more likely to struggle in later grades than students with better whole number understanding, and remediation at this age may prevent future difficulties. Fourth grade is also when the curriculum increases focus on rational numbers and on fractions. It is important for students to gain these skills prior to middle school, when algebra becomes the primary focus. Since fractions are used in many life skills—like personal finance and cooking—there are long-term implications for children who do not develop the ability to solve problems that involve them.

In contrast to the dearth of IES investments in science, we have supported considerable research in how students learn rational numbers (see IES' most recent Practice Guide, Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Intervention in the Elementary Grades). However, most of the interventions IES has supported have been expensive, requiring individual or small group settings and interventionists with intensive training. Few of these interventions have resulted in products that are readily available or affordable. Educators need accessible, sustainable, and evidence-based tools to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

IES is also using this competition to encourage research on the use of technology to deliver effective digital instruction. Ultimately, we will reward research teams that find ways to improve math achievement outcomes for students with or at risk for disabilities in grades 3–5 as measured by an adaptive, psychometrically-sound, and widely used measure of math achievement.

Accelerating Learning

Both prizes will use American Rescue Plan funds, which Congress awarded to IES to help identify strategies and interventions that accelerate learning among students who were particularly affected by the disaster that was COVID. We believe that both competitions have the promise of finding effective interventions that can accelerate the learning of students who are lagging further and further behind in critical STEM skills.

If you have any thoughts about either of these competitions or want to tip us off to a promising innovation, you can reach me at