An education leader who works with scores of districts and schools across the nation told me this week that educators feel like Dorothy when her house was lifted by the tornado—all of the furniture is aloft and spinning, and they are just looking for something to hold onto, for an anchor in the storm. I have that feeling, too. It’s hard to not fear that we’ll have to reinvent the whole of teaching, learning, and assessment on the fly when school resumes for the 2020–2021 school year, whether in buildings, virtually, or a combination. But looking for something new, shiny, or complicated is just a distraction. We have the practices and tools to help students recover the learning that was lost or missed.
Our job in 2020–2021 is to do what we know works.
Most classroom teachers in this country are faced year after year with students who do not have the knowledge and skills required to perform at grade level, and many help those students make meaningful progress toward proficiency. Learning gaps are not a new challenge, and we know what works to help students succeed:
- Keep expectations high and prioritize rigorous grade-level instruction.
- Don’t waste time trying to make up for all the gaps. Use surgical precision to accurately and quickly identify the prerequisite knowledge and skills needed to access the current lesson and scaffold for those who need more support.
- Keep remediation limited to a relatively short amount of time each week, and make sure it is personalized.
- Monitor student progress with a variety of assessment tools and practices that are integrated into instruction and are part of a high-quality curriculum.
- Use interim assessments 2–3 times per year to help determine at which grade level the student is working, and in which skills they need the most support.
Most would say this has been happening in their districts for years, but this time we must mean it.
The tools and practices teachers need to support students who have skills gaps (even those who are more than one grade level behind) already exist. We need to make sure that teachers have access to the tools they need and that policies that prioritize targeted instruction above all else are in place.
Districts should fiercely protect instructional time and prioritize only necessary assessments.
It goes without saying that administering some form of state-level summative assessment at the beginning of the school year would be a colossal waste of teachers’ most valuable resource: instructional time. We also know that any assessment that is even remotely associated with accountability immediately loses its value for informing instruction. That said, there is a time and a place for state and federal accountability; it’s just not when students return to school in the fall. What is needed in the fall are assessments that provide teachers with rich, actionable feedback focused on grade-level instruction.
Educators need to understand student progress and be able to relate that information to instructional choices. Normative-based growth metrics are very useful in understanding how students are performing compared to some defined population—most commonly a national sample of students in the same grade—but this information is insufficient from an instructional point of view. As an educator, I need to know the specific knowledge and skills that will keep students on the path to grade-level proficiency, especially for the student who is one or more grade levels behind. I also need to know an ambitious yet attainable annual growth goal so I can be confident that the student is on a path toward grade level rather than just increasing their rank order. As such, normative information simply cannot be the sole solution to help measure learning gaps, track student progress, and inform instruction. It’s never been sufficient and will certainly fail our educators and students next school year if that is the only data teachers have as a resource.
Before the pandemic, teachers all across the nation were faced with classrooms full of students with learning gaps. Let’s learn from the triumphant students who have overcome these hurdles in the past and gained proficiency over time. Those recovered students are our guides. Let's adopt the practices and tools of those teachers who helped those students reach proficiency, and let's use that information to finally—in the face of this crisis—get to proficiency for all students.
We need targeted instruction that puts students on a path to grade level—and we have the tools.
The solution is not more assessments, different assessments, or some clever, hobbled-together hybrid. Next year will be challenging, but we know what to do! Let’s do that and nothing else. Let's be the anchors in the storm and get to work.
This post was adapted from the original version, which was published on the Center for Assessment blog.
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