It’s Déjà vu All Over Again: Revisiting Assessment Recommendations With an Eye on Learning Acceleration

Jul 15, 2021

A Need to Support Learning Acceleration in School Year 2021-2022

I was asked recently if the Center was producing assessment recommendations for back-to-school this fall. My first reaction was, “wait, didn’t we already do that?” When my pandemic-induced time fog finally cleared enough, I remembered that we produced a comprehensive set of recommendations with Rebecca Kockler and our colleagues at CCSSO for assessment in fall 2020. Last year’s recommendations are still relevant, but the need to support learning acceleration in the 2021-2022 school year is even more prominent. 

When we wrote that document last summer, we assumed, perhaps naïvely, that most students would be back in school buildings in the fall of 2020. When this assumption did not bear out, we quickly regrouped and offered a range of high-quality advice about how to assess student learning in hybrid and remote environments, such as Carla Evans’s post on formative assessment (see our COVID-19 Response Resource page for many more examples). Thankfully, we are looking to the next school year with some hope of normalcy. 

It will be great to have students back in school, but the emerging state assessment results suggest that it will require extraordinary and sustained efforts focused on learning acceleration to catch students up by the end of the next school year. To be fair, we do not have many success stories of learning acceleration at the rates necessary to bridge the learning shortfalls we are observing this year. Twenty years after No Child Left Behind, far too many students are not meeting grade-level expectations, even in more normal times. 

Perhaps the influx of federal funds can be put to good use and help support these tremendous needs.

Start with Curriculum and Focus on Classroom Assessment

We and many others have written that a shared model of learning is the critical anchor in a balanced assessment system. This conceptualization of learning can be instantiated through research-based, locally-mediated learning progressions (e.g., Shepard, Penuel, & Pellegrino, 2018), but I and others argue that since teachers tend to be less familiar with learning progressions than curriculum, a high-quality curriculum might be a better way to anchor instructionally-useful systems of assessment.

During a recent webinar, Rebecca Kockler outlined the research supporting the use of a high-quality curriculum to improve teaching and learning. I cannot think of a better use of the massive influx of federal funds than ensuring every child and teacher has access to an up-to-date, high-quality curriculum in all content areas. People like Bob Marzano have been preaching this for years with his call for a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” for all students. The Louisiana Department of Education and EdReports have made the task of identifying high-quality curriculum much easier by organizing independent reviews of a considerable number of potential products.

Ensuring all students have legitimate access to a high-quality curriculum would be a major step in advancing equitable learning opportunities, but curricula must be implemented with fidelity by novice as well as expert teachers. State and district leaders should not stop at simply purchasing new curriculum materials. They must allocate considerable funding to support professional development associated with effectively instructing the curriculum. Perhaps not as eye-catching as some slick new tech tools, high-quality curriculum and associated professional development can provide the necessary foundation for accelerated learning.

The third part of the curriculum-instruction-assessment triangle can be addressed as part of professional development efforts. Teachers will gain insights into the curriculum’s learning expectations by designing and/or selecting end-of-unit assessment, formative probes, and other means of collecting evidence to support and document student learning. This approach would fit nicely with the recommendations my colleagues and I made last year at this time. Assessment efforts in Fall 2021 should prioritize collecting evidence related to students’ readiness to engage in the first few units of instruction rather than trying to document all the knowledge and skills students might need to know for the coming grade.

Monitoring the Efficacy of Interventions 

Susana Loeb and others have been making a research-based case for high-impact tutoring as one of the few proven ways to accelerate learning for all students. Others are suggesting practices such as extending the school day and/or school year to increase students’ “time on task.” No matter which interventions are used, my interest is in helping school and district leaders think about assessment approaches to monitor the degree to which those interventions are working as intended, and to support continuous improvement efforts.

Most interventions should be tied closely to the intended curriculum, so students’ progress should be assessed using curriculum-embedded assessments. Information from curriculum-embedded assessments is especially important for school leaders responsible for supporting the day-to-day intervention work of teachers and students. However, district and state leaders also will need to aggregate results on the effectiveness of the interventions across student groups, schools, and districts. Interim assessments tied to specific clusters of state standards (rather than a broad sample of the content) should provide these leaders with data to evaluate the relative effectiveness of targeted interventions throughout the year, allowing them to highlight successful entities, as well as those needing additional support. 

Finally, the state assessment in Spring 2022 will serve as an important touchstone to evaluate student and group performance against known proficiency standards and, even more importantly, can be used to monitor student growth (assuming participation in the 2021 state test) over this critical year.

Equity at the Core

Finally, we cannot lose sight of the ways in which the pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequalities in society and our educational system. Therefore, interventions to accelerate learning must be geared to help bridge these equity opportunities. As such, assessment must be used to support learning and instruction instead of labeling and sorting students into mindless remediation activities. 

Again, the paper we published last summer went into considerable detail guiding readers through various use cases for supporting learning and instruction across the multiple levels of the educational system. We also provided suggestions, still applicable this year, about thinking through the differing needs of students and teachers across grade spans and content areas.