From nearly the very first week that U.S. schools entered a “new normal” thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and researchers have sounded the alarm about its detrimental effects on learning. Almost everything researchers know about what affects learning—time on task, online learning, summer learning loss, and chronic absenteeism—indicates that many students will come in with significant deficits from the 2019-20 school year.
Just how much students could regress remains a matter of some debate; one estimate put it at a half or more of a year of learning. And every district must devise ways to diagnose and respond.
The Cleveland district, for example, has bold plans to group students in new ways based on need and possibly even to do away with traditional grade levels. Many districts will probably hew to more traditional arrangements. But whatever their approach, districts will need to get a good handle on what students successfully learned during their months of remote instruction and what they might need additional help on.
“One of the things we realize is that no matter how good a job we do, there’s going to be a regression and there’s going to be learning loss,” says Mark Secaur, the deputy superintendent of the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools in Woodmere, New York. “And a lot of the work we’ve done is to try to identify the gaps that will be caused by this and try to mitigate them.”
But how do you start getting that gauge? Part of the problem, educators say, is that the term “diagnostic” in K-12 is a slippery, ill-defined one. But that is not stopping vendors of both commercial exams and other products from using the term as they hawk services to help districts get a sense of where kids are.
The superintendents and testing experts EdWeek interviewed say: Not so fast.
So-called diagnostic tests may not provide as much helpful information as leaders think, and some of the most powerful strategies are also the simplest, though they will involve detailed work before school begins: Putting teachers in touch with one another, and going through what was actually taught from March onward with a fine-toothed comb.
Here are their five tips for grasping what students know and don’t for the 2020-21 school year, and how to respond.
1. Don’t use state tests or off-the-shelf exams as a “diagnostic” tool.
That’s one of the recommendations from Scott Marion, at the Center for Assessment, who said he’s had to talk a few state chiefs out of the idea of administering last spring’s state test in the fall.
The year-end tests, which are generally used to gauge students’ broad grasp of standards and meet state requirements under federal law, aren’t so great for pinpointing areas of instructional strength and weaknesses.
“Do not give a general assessment of the prior year content, or earlier content, that isn’t tied to your curriculum as closely as possible. And if you do, don’t make deterministic decisions about them,” said Marion, noting that the results will be tenuous at best. For example, some students who look like they’re behind might bounce back in two weeks and should not be automatically put in a remedial track.
Adding to the confusion, well-meaning groups are compiling lists of so-called diagnostic assessments districts might use at the beginning of the year to “figure out where kids are.” But testing experts warn that each of these exams was developed for different purposes and need to be considered within those contexts. While some might provide some general guidance to district leaders to help allocate funding or identify focus for PD, they’re unlikely to be of much use to teachers, who need to plan for fine-grained teaching differences.
“I don’t think I can give you a large-scale assessment that can tell you what aspects of fractions you know and don’t know,” Marion explains. “We need things that are much more in teachers’ hands for the instructional piece.”
It’s a sentiment largely echoed by other educators, even as they acknowledge that many districts are getting pitched by vendors for solutions.
“District leaders love assessment and love measurement, and they’re usually a little light on the what-do-we-do-with-it-now piece,” said Eric Kalenze, a high school English teacher in Minneapolis and director of ResearchED U.S., a teacher collaborative that aims to improve the use of education research in K-12 schools. “My biggest caution is to figure out ways to strengthen your local assessment and feedback process, rather than go to the global tests. They’re not going to give you as good a picture of what is happening in front of you.”
2. Equip teachers with better real-time gauges of learning.
Rather than diagnostic exams, districts might consider investing in teacher training on how to develop and make use of their own day-by-day and minute-to-minute gauges of what students know that help them alter teaching in real time. While this idea of “formative assessment” has been around for decades, it is still not deeply ingrained in American schools.
Many teachers are worried about negotiating large disparities in student performance as a result of the digital divide and differential access to learning materials. But as formative assessment expert Dylan William notes, schools have always had a range of student abilities at each grade level because of social promotion and other decisions.
One idea, he says, is to help teachers learn how to ask range-finding questions that help them quickly judge where a whole class is at the beginning of a lesson. In biology, for example, a teacher could pose something like this: What percentage of water taken in by a corn plant is lost by transpiration?
Students’ responses to that will indicate whether they have the prerequisite knowledge or not for the day’s lesson, and teachers can then pitch their instruction appropriately.
“Most people think that the purpose of feedback is to improve the work,” said William, an emeritus professor at the University of College London. “But in fact, it’s to improve the student’s performance on a task not yet attempted. Feedback is designed to make you play better for the next day.”
3. Connect your teachers to one another now.
Kalenze’s school has just one section in English in grades 6-12, so he’ll get to see all his students in the next grade in the fall. That turns out to be an ideal setup for the return to school.
“‘I have all this knowledge about who got exposed to what, and that’s going to be super handy going into next year: ‘Lexie never read Romeo & Juliet and someone else never did the persuasive essay,’” he said. “I think to the extent possible; you should really connect previous grade level teachers to current grade level teachers in the early going to discuss certain students. That might be more informative than anything—way more informative than a standardized test—because then you can talk about who’s been disconnected, who’s been completely out of loop, and who’s thrived.”
Arrangements like the one in Kalenze’s school are a difficult lift for larger high schools and for most school districts, of course. Some districts are considering “looping”—keeping teachers with the same students as they progress to the next grade—but the practice isn’t always logistically feasible (or desirable, if a teacher doesn’t have a good grasp on the curriculum in the successive grade).
But the basic idea of connecting each student’s prior year teachers to their new ones to review their progress, stands out as a best practice, even though it may take some administrative finagling.
4. Focus on the gaps in your content and the curriculum—not just on students’ performance gaps.
It’s a truism that students can only demonstrate mastery of a topic if they’ve been given enough exposure to the crucial content and skills that underpin it. That’s the idea behind some districts’ approaches.
In the Hewlett-Woodmere schools, the district has helped teachers meet in “collegial circles’ by subject and grade level to talk about what parts of the 2019-20 curriculum they were able to cover during the shift to remote learning, and what they ended up leaving out, due to pacing problems or difficulty teaching that content through distance learning. The point is to get to a consensus about what, in general, students didn’t get a sufficient opportunity to learn.
Then, the teachers will examine the next year’s curriculum, weave in these missing foundational pieces, and alter the scope and sequence of lessons and units to match.
“The answers to these questions are serving as the impetus for curriculum writing,” says Secaur. The 3,000-student district was able to redirect its conference and workshop funds for the year towards curriculum to aid the process.
Not only will that help make sure that learning stays on grade level, he also believes teachers are more likely to embrace it than other external interventions.
“There is a big lift involved, but by having the teachers lead the way in that work, they’re going to be much more invested in the outcome than if we were to tell them, ‘Oh, we’re going to loop next year,’” he said. “We really want them to point the way.”
Districts that already use shared curricula across their schools and grades are in a better position to help teachers come together and identify the skills and content that most students probably missed in the last few weeks of the 2019-20, said Mike McGee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, in a recent webinar with some of the nation’s largest superintendents. Districts that have yet to standardize what students are learning may want to prioritize that for the upcoming school year, he said.
A handful of publishers, like Great Minds, the publisher of the Eureka Math materials, also say they will release curriculum-aligned tests that will purportedly help target foundational skills for each of their units. Those exams will be at least theoretically aligned to specific content, and potentially could be more helpful than more generic reading and math exams in helping to pinpoint teaching gaps.
5. Resist the temptation to reteach. Focus on grade-level curriculum instead.
While it’s highly tempting to go back and reteach the last chunk of the school year—especially if in-person teaching is possible—the smart money says that’s probably the wrong move. With the possible exception of one-on-one tutoring, the research literature on remediation generally finds few benefits for students. (Historic, continuing gaps in performance between underserved students and their peers also testify to how hard it is to catch students up en masse.)
“Our number one commitment is to accelerate. We are going to stay on high expectations on current grade level, and use intervention time and home time to address the needs,” said Scott Langford, the assistant director for instruction of the 30,000-student Sumner County, Tenn., schools north of Nashville. “Everything I’ve read is that when you go back and try to over-remediate, all you do is grow larger deficits.”
Langford’s district hopes to use that as a jumping-off point for intervention, so as teachers identify foundational skills and content students need help with, it can supply parents with information and ask them to focus on those skills at home. That would free up teachers to spend most of their time on the grade-level curriculum.
There will need to be some backtracking, of course: It’s impossible, for instance, to do fractions absent some grasp of decimals, and in such cases focused attention might be necessary. And for some administrators, it can be hard to avoid the temptation to focus on reteaching, especially when external pressures, like end-of-course exams, drive a lot of handwringing.
But top leaders say the overall goal for teaching should be broader.
“The key issue is what skills and competencies students need to take the next math course and progress through all the courses,” notes Secaur of the Hewlett-Woodmere district. “My concern is not, are we going to have a 93 percent average on the algebra Regents’ exam. It’s, are students going to be prepared for geometry? We have to make sure that area is covered.”