Are you misusing standardized assessment results when remediating learning gaps?
During the 2020-2021 school year, some students managed to stay on track academically throughout remote and hybrid learning, while many others experienced the COVID slide we had feared. Unfortunately, this variation in student knowledge is nothing new. COVID-19 has just exacerbated it.
When your students’ learning gaps vary so widely, with so much learning loss to address, the stakes are high to properly diagnose each student’s needs. The question isn’t whether to assess, but how.
The logical approach most teachers will take is to define exactly what their students know and don’t know by administering an interim assessment.
For instance, NWEA’s MAP test will tell a 7th grade teacher that their student is at the 5th grade level in geometry concepts, 4th grade in number sense, and so on. These tests, comprising 25-55 questions, approximate where students are along a learning trajectory that aligns with how topics are organized across grade levels. The assessment results define the learning gaps that get remediated.
What seems logical can actually be problematic for both student and teacher.
Remediation can be misdirected.
Standardized assessments are not meant to identify specific skills that students have missed in previous grade levels; they are meant to give an approximate position. The number of questions necessary to identify specific skill gaps would be untenable.
Also, the limited number of questions force a false dichotomy: you either know it or you don’t. In reality, student knowledge is not as absolute.
For example, a student might know something about multiplying fractions and need just a smidge of remediation, but the diagnostic has no way of identifying the real need. Therefore, relying on standardized assessments to dictate intervention plans can lead to tremendous over-remediation on skills that don’t need to be remediated.
Remediation can waste time.
Interim assessment results are overly conservative when diagnosing learning gaps. This means a student will remediate below the level where they should.
Let’s do the math. Since there are 30-50 standards per grade level, one question aligns to 3-4 hours of remediation. The impact is even greater with adaptive assessments, since the questions are linked together.
That could mean that missing a question on fraction subtraction leads to remediation on many elements of fractions. In a world where there isn’t even enough time for core instruction, adding hours of unnecessary remediation to students’ schedules isn’t likely to lead to much success and, frankly, can waste valuable time.
Remediation can perpetuate inequity.
Students returning to school after an irregular school year may be unprepared for testing and thus not demonstrate their abilities well on a diagnostic assessment. We would expect this lack of preparation to differentially affect disadvantaged students, who have experienced more learning loss than their advantaged peers.
If remediation depends on the assessment results, students of color and those from low-income households will be placed further behind than they need to be, entrenching the achievement gap.
We are quickly going to learn that this approach emphasizes and reinforces inequality in our education system.
While interim assessments are not the solution, we can’t shy away from the challenge that students and teachers are facing today and this next school year.
The solution: start students on grade-level content and conduct in-line diagnosis with formative assessment during instruction.
This approach is backed by data. We examined learning data in our MATHia software of more than 97,000 students and found that they can do grade-level work. Approximately 90% of students struggle with less than 20% of grade-level content they are asked to master.
If students can do grade-level content, why don’t we start them on grade and then, when they struggle, we can remediate the pre-requisite skills they haven’t learned or mastered? This way, the remediation and grade-level learning are “just in time” and relevant to what the student is learning at grade level.
An approach that focuses on formative assessment and just-in-time learning has many benefits, especially for students.
With limited time to help students accelerate learning, it’s more important than ever to work smarter, not harder. So, avoid the diagnostic dangers of high-stakes assessments.
Instead, diagnose student needs after they start with grade-level content and remediate where they are actually struggling. This just-in-time learning approach is precise, efficient, and advances equity.
The American Rescue Plan provides funding to help districts overcome learning loss. MATHia, our award-winning 1:1 math software, does this by providing high-quality formative assessment and real-time feedback, giving you ongoing insight into student learning along the way.
The recent past has been challenging, but the future looks promising. We’ll meet you there.
Peter is an educator with over 20 years of strategy, education and product development experience. He led the redesign of a university, built new educational programs, designed content and taught middle school. At Carnegie Learning, Peter shapes our organizational and product strategy and ensures that we continue to develop leading-edge products and services that help all students learn.Explore more related to this author
Standardized assessments are not meant to identify specific skills that students have missed in previous grade levels; they are meant to give an approximate position.