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Each standard is important, but some are critical for future learning--this year, focusing on those critical standards is key to helping students get back on track

Focusing on key standards to accelerate learning


Each standard is important, but some are critical for future learning--this year, focusing on those critical standards is key to helping students get back on track

While each standard is important and it should not be up to individual teachers which are taught and which are not, the truth is that each year some skills get overlooked or rushed past. It may not be ideal, but there are so many that, as education researcher Bob Marzano once noted, if we taught students to master every standard in each grade, we’d have students in class year-round and they wouldn’t graduate until they were in their twenties!

This year, teachers are finding themselves with even more ground to cover. In addition to the standards of the grades they’re currently in, many students, particularly those in middle school, need instruction in skills they would have mastered last year without the disruptions associated with the pandemic.

Simply put, many students still need to learn material from last year before they are ready to progress to this year’s standards. Here’s how my district, Schuyler Community Schools, is working to get students up to speed while still addressing the new content they need to learn this year.

Identifying the critical standards

Our district began prioritizing standards years ago. While we certainly don’t encourage teachers to skip any standards, we know that students simply do not have the time to attain deep mastery of each one. As we’re prioritizing a standard, we look at a range of factors, such as the leverage it provides for future learning, the breadth and depth of the standard, and whether it will be assessed.

The idea is not to ignore standards that have less depth or that students won’t be assessed on. The district always expects teachers to touch on each standard, but at the end of the year, our priority standards are the ones that students must understand and master to continue their learning progression.

Nebraska recently adopted the ACT as a state assessment, so we have prioritized standards to account for what it assesses. Students take the ACT in 11th grade, but they can’t learn everything it covers during that one year, so we’ve gone all the way back to our standards from kindergarten to make sure that we’re prioritizing standards that align with those later skills.

How to find the most productive focus

Last year, Renaissance released a free resource, Focus Skills, that works similarly to our standards prioritization. Based on learning progressions for each state, Focus Skills reflect the reading and math standards that are prerequisites for future learning. Renaissance has also added Trip Steps, which are the math skills that are demonstrably more difficult than other skills at the same grade level.

These tools help us guide our teachers to spend the most time on skills that are 1) necessary for future learning; and 2) difficult for students to understand. This year, when students have many gaps in their learning, we’re also helping teachers identify the skills from the previous year that are most critical for students’ current grade, along with the ones they’re most likely to need a little extra time with.

Targeting instruction with assessment data and key standards

Once teachers have a detailed picture of what skills are absolutely essential for future learning, what skills from last year are key to understanding this year’s curriculum, and what skills their students are struggling with, they can look through benchmark assessments from the beginning of the school year to see where students might have missed some instruction. Teachers can’t just stop this year’s grade-level instruction to review everything from last year, so we’ve been trying to find ways to scaffold in the pieces of this year’s material that build upon what students may have missed last year.

For example, this year our daily bell ringers have become an opportunity to refamiliarize students with concepts from the previous grade that are relevant to the day’s lesson. This doesn’t work to introduce a class full of students to a critical concept they may have missed, but it is useful in a class of students who are familiar with a key skill, but who didn’t get to learn it as deeply as they might have in a more normal year.

To address those more concerning bits of learning that students were unable to master last year, we’ve adjusted our schedule. For example, our middle school schedule now includes a 30-minute intervention time opposite student lunch times. Students are assigned according to their needs as shown by their Star Assessment scores, which are compared to our state benchmarks. Students performing below standards level receive intensive intervention, those who meet standards level have on-level interventions, and those who are performing at the secure level get enrichment activities. Each school reassesses students monthly to determine if they’re ready to move to new groups.

Our teachers are also doing similar intervention with small groups in their classrooms, just as they would in a normal year.

While 2021–2022 feels different because our students began it behind the starting line, the path to a successful academic year is very much the same as any other year. We will assess our students, target our instruction to where they are, and focus our efforts on the skills that will have the greatest impact on their future success.

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