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In an uncertain fall, remote assessments and focus skills offer clarity

In the new academic year, assessment will be more critical than ever in uncovering learning gaps, and Focus Skills will help to address those gaps

Teachers around the country have a lot of questions this fall. How will the lack of summative assessment data from last spring impact the school year? How quickly can I determine what students may have missed in the chaotic close of the 2019–2020 school year? Are remote assessments accurate? How can I parse the interim and formative assessment data of incoming students and focus on the areas that will provide the greatest return?

The answers will vary from school to school, but across the board, assessment is going to be critical in getting students back on track.

Missing and Remote Assessments: Do We Have the Data We Need?

The majority of schools closed in the spring before they had a chance to perform their standard end-of-year summative assessments. That’s one source of data that teachers didn’t have as they planned for the new academic year.

Compounding this issue, students’ abilities are likely going to be far more varied than they are at the beginning of a typical school year. Again, there are many unanswered questions: What material did students still need to cover when school buildings closed? How much new instruction was provided via distance learning? Did students have internet access? Did students stay engaged or disconnect from school completely? Did students have family members who were able to step in and support their progress, or were they struggling along alone?

Teachers will have to more heavily rely on fall assessments to understand where their students are, and what learning gaps exist within their classroom. Of course, many schools are starting the fall with virtual instruction, raising the question of whether remote testing is as effective or accurate as in-person assessment.

The folks at Imagine Schools, a charter network with 30,000 students at schools in seven states and the District of Columbia, answered this last question by 1) conducting remote assessments in the spring; and 2) commissioning a study of that data. Dr. Bill Younkin of the Biscayne Research Group examined the scores of approximately 5,000 students at 16 of Imagine’s schools and found that remote assessment was as effective as in-person assessment, with a couple of minor exceptions.

“Particularly low scores were a little less common among students being assessed remotely,” noted Younkin, “while exceptionally high scores were slightly more common. These effects were both observed at the lower grades, but virtually disappeared at the higher grades.”

Whether they are administered at school or at home, interim assessments will be critical in identifying and addressing the gaps from last year as quickly as possible. The goal, of course, is to get students back on track to meet grade-level requirements for this year.

Where to Focus?

Education experts predict that students will be, on average, further behind this fall than they have been in years past, and that the “COVID Slide” will create wider gaps in performance than the usual summer slide. With all these challenges, how will teachers decide which gaps to focus on first?

To help, Renaissance released Focus Skills, the essential K–12 literacy and math skills that students must master to progress to other skills—and made them freely available to every school and district.

“Take, for example, the ability for kindergarten students to recognize letters and the sounds they make,” explained Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance. “That is a basic phonics skill that students must master in order to progress. If they can’t recognize letters or pair them with the correct sounds, their literacy progress will halt indefinitely. That is why this is a Focus Skill.”

While teachers know that some skills are more important than others, it sometimes leads to a bit of contention.

“I say to teachers all the time that standards aren’t optional,” said Janice Pavelonis, assistant superintendent of curriculum at Carbondale Elementary School District #95 in Illinois. “You have to teach them all. So the idea of prioritizing standards really was hard for me.”

Pavelonis said she feels uncomfortable with the idea of removing certain standards based on opinions, even expert opinions, rather than research. Leaning on Focus Skills this fall is different, however.

“I have been training our teachers for the last two years on how to address learning gaps while continuing to deliver grade-level content,” she explained. “Using the identified Focus Skills allows me to feel confident these are the right skills to prioritize to ensure our students have what they need to grow.”

The Focus Skills map each critical skill to the standards of every state and give teachers the ability to toggle back and forth between grades, K–12, so they can see what critical skills their students may have missed out on.

And while there is much we don’t know about the coming school year, the question of what students need to know now—and how teachers can most effectively teach it—will be clear with a strategic combination of assessments and targeted instruction on the skills that matter most.


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