Ensuring Your Students are Ready for Grade Level Content
How to identify learning gaps and instructional strategies that move learners forward
As students across the country return to in-person learning this fall, we know that many students made gains over the previous school year. However, for some, the gains were significantly less than in prior years because of built-in disparities of our education system for lower socio-economic students, minorities, English learners, and students with disabilities. These are the same students who were most impacted by the pandemic and the disruptions in learning. With more than a year of interrupted learning, the academic focus for the coming year is identifying and supporting students, so they can get back on grade level.
Schools and districts are prioritizing students’ immediate needs as they return to campus. Addressing the impact of interrupted learning on all students but, in particular, the ones most negatively impacted by the pandemic is paramount for educators. Teachers will work to re-engage students in face-to-face learning and use diagnostic assessments to identify students who will most benefit from acceleration of learning strategies.
The State of Unfinished Learning
Even though, school districts have always addressed learning gaps with their school populations, the scale of the effort post-COVID is a challenge. A new report from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, found that there was some recovery between Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 in math and reading assessment scores for white and Asian students, but not for Black, Latinx, Native American, or English learners. It is not surprising that longstanding gaps in access and resources for these communities, “carry over to measures of their academic achievement and outcomes.”1
The American Rescue Plan Act requires school districts to spend 20 percent of their ESSER funds to address the impact of lost instructional time through the implementation of evidence-based interventions and to ensure the interventions align with student needs. In addition to providing more time for learning during the school day, afterschool, and during the summer, educators can mitigate the damage from interrupted learning by providing “all students with grade-level, content-rich instructional materials.”2 Districts need flexible learning models as they extend learning opportunities to close achievement gaps.
Diagnostic assessment plays a crucial role in discovering the extent of the learning gaps to help teachers know what content to teach. Teachers use this information as a starting point to plan instruction that will meet learners’ needs. As students receive support, ongoing formative assessment provides opportunities for targeted feedback loops to both student and educator. Assessment that informs instruction helps teachers choose the right instruction at the right time for each student. With districts planning a major spending increase focused on the impact of lost instructional time — 74 percent in tutoring and 65 percent for software,3 district partners can play a key support role by helping schools and districts accelerate learning for all students.
Defining Accelerated Learning
Acceleration focuses on teaching only what must be learned, at a given level, instead of trying to teach everything that a student did not learn in the previous grade or grades. Teachers must identify crucial content that students need to learn, so that students can access grade-level material as soon as possible. Prioritizing grade-level standards and focusing instructionally embedded assessments and formative assessment practices on current grade-level standards will accelerate student learning. Accelerating student learning requires providing just-in-time support to students that is planned, intentional, and practical.
“Accelerating student learning requires providing just-in-time support to students that is planned, intentional, and practical.”
Once teachers have identified the learning gaps, they can choose differentiated instruction to move learning forward. Differentiated instruction uses a variety of instructional strategies to meet students where they are and move them to where they need to go. This requires adjusting the content and process to help students meet challenging performance standards.
Opportunities to accelerate learning rely on robust grade-level instruction that includes grade-appropriate assignments. This instruction should be enhanced with supports targeted to the skills and services students need to stay on grade level. Teachers can use scaffolded, grade-level lessons to support students as they move toward academic independence. Gradual release is an effective method to moving students toward working on their own successfully.
Acceleration Supported by Research
There is a strong tendency for schools, based on past practice, to want to remediate student learning gaps and delay access to grade-level work until all the missing learning is remediated.
However, research shows that students are better served by a more effective approach to unfinished learning. “Acceleration provides a fresh academic start for students every week and creates opportunities for struggling students to learn alongside their more successful peers.”4
Acceleration prepares students for grade-level learning combined with “just-in-time” teaching of missing key skills and concepts in the purposeful context of current lessons.
In the new COVID Relief Playbook: Smart Strategies for Investing Federal Funding, the nonprofit FutureEd notes that because of lost and interrupted learning during the pandemic, that now is “the perfect time to provide all students with grade-level, content-rich instructional materials.” The use of ESSER funds requires that states and districts invest in evidence-based resources, and research shows that using high-quality curriculum materials boosts student achievement more than any other type of intervention. The report continues, “upgrading instructional materials is a relatively low-cost, high-return investment.”
In a recent study from The New Teacher Project, researchers found that students who learned content from their “previous grade woven into content for the new grade, struggled less and learned more than students who started at the same level but received remediation.” The report notes that this just-in-time approach was particularly effective for students of color and students from low-income families. Since these are the same students as those most impacted by the pandemic, the research indicates that acceleration is more effective than remediation in getting students back to grade-level work.
The Importance of Diagnostic Assessments
As students get re-socialized to being in classrooms and teachers transition them back to schools using social-emotional learning strategies, ensuring that students will be working at the right grade-level is dependent on reliable diagnostic assessments. Then as the student progresses, ongoing formative assessments provide the data teachers need to keep students on track. Accelerated learning depends on ongoing assessments to recalibrate the instruction teachers provide.
Acceleration prepares students for new learning combined with “just-in-time” teaching of missing key skills and concepts in the context of current lessons. Opportunities to accelerate learning rely on robust grade-level instruction that includes grade-appropriate assignments. This instruction should be combined with learning supports that target the skills students need to stay on grade level. The formative assessment process is a valuable tool to support and accelerate learning and growth. It should be part of a teachers’ toolkit.
A recent EdWeek article on choosing technology to accelerate learning defined acceleration as “reviewing information from a previous grade only to the extent necessary to support learning new, grade-level subject matter.” The author notes that “acceleration gives students the background information they’ll need to access a particular grade-level concept, as opposed to trying to catch them up on all the information they may have missed the previous year.” To move students forward to appropriate grade-level work, we must accelerate their learning. Educators should look for programs that have an effective diagnostic screening tool and scaffold content just enough to support students in their work to reach grade-appropriate learning outcomes.
The integrated tools of Coach Digital Compass move students forward in grade-level instruction, while the prescribed pathways in Catch Up with Coach focus on missing essential skills needed to succeed at grade level.