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A Case for Measuring Student Progress

Progress tracking has always felt like a bit of a no brainer to me. If I signed up for a half marathon, and trained leading up to it but didn’t check if I was getting closer to 20 miles each week, I would be in a lot of trouble on the day of the race. If I needed to save $500 for a vacation and hoped I was putting away enough but didn’t check my bank account until I got to the airport, I probably would not be boarding that flight.

Data drives a lot of my personal life, so when I began teaching it became an important factor of my professional life, too. Districts and states require teachers to follow standardized testing cycles each academic year. These scores give insight to how the students are doing, affect school rating and reflect on teacher performance as well. 

Many teachers implement additional data tracking strategies in their classroom. I assessed my students individually every other week on their reading fluency, as well as in guided reading groups almost every day. I collected math exit tickets after each lesson and used equity sticks during lessons at the carpet to check for understanding with students at random. All of this helped me get a better picture of what my class needed: what gaps did students have as individuals or as a whole, and how did I need to alter my instruction to address these.

Without collecting data I easily could have bulldozed through an entire math chapter in a month only to discover after the test that over half of the class got lost on lesson one and never caught on. 


Shutdown Suspends State Testing

Data is crucial to the success of individual students, classes, and on a higher level to the education system as a whole. In the past, Colorado has relied heavily on data from standardized test scores to get a picture of where different schools and districts stand. However this spring, the COVID shutdowns and abrupt shift to distance learning meant that no state standardized tests were administered. 

Under normal circumstances, not conducting end of year testing and assessments would be problematic in the school system and for individual schools looking to the next year. As we all are abundantly aware, the past few months have not been normal circumstances.

Instruction During COVID

If asked to sum up COVID instruction in a few phrases, I would say: largely inconsistent, there is less of it, and students who need it the most are getting the least. Most teachers reported that they spent less time on direct instruction overall, and the instruction they did was largely focused on review rather than introducing new material. Many states waived requirements for instructional time and changed their grading systems to pass/fail or narrative rather than standards based.

There was a huge range of requirements for distance learning methods between schools and districts, and although many teachers did more than what was asked of them, these differences in instruction will undoubtedly show up in learning gaps in the coming months and years. 

And as we found in just about every other area of life and society, COVID negatively impacted low-income populations in a much bigger way than others.

Access to technology was a huge barrier that districts had to navigate with distance learning. Even when students could get digital devices at home, many families did not have high-speed internet access and districts often struggled to navigate this for a significant portion of the semester. Students without access to technology and internet therefore lost the ability to participate in synchronous learning (real time instruction with interaction, such as Zoom lessons).

One EdWeek Research Center Survey found that districts with the least amount of low-income families were more than twice as likely to provide fully synchronous instruction than districts with the most low-income families. The issues of inequality within the education system that have been called to light during COVID are not new, but rather the “normalizing” factors have almost entirely been taken away so that only inequality remains. 

Even in the “ideal”  or “controlled” condition where all students are physically attending a school every day and technically have equal access to an education, these disparities have a huge impact on student learning: what they get outside the classroom, after school or during breaks can be a huge advantage or disadvantage to achievement.

When the “controlled” portion of the american education system - the physical school building and all the things that accompany that - was taken away, these disparities became the foundation of the individual students' education.

They were no longer the after school enrichment program or nightly homework help or additional reading material that supplements the baseline of “school” - having or not having these things determined whether students had or did not have an education these last three months. 

From Looking Back to Looking Ahead: Assessments in the Fall

Not taking an exit ticket after a key math lesson could derail my class for the entire chapter. Not monitoring student learning or progress when students were out of the classroom, with the extreme discrepancies distance learning heightened, could derail an entire…? Without data, we don’t know the damage that has been and continues to be done.  There should be a sense of urgency around state assessments in the fall to determine what gaps have been created or widened and to prevent vulnerable students from slipping further behind. 

Advocacy groups in Colorado have called on the Department of Education to use federal money to develop and administer a standard diagnostic test at the beginning of the school year to all students. Some educators and policy makers  have pushed back against standardized testing, worrying that it will become punitive for schools or educators for what they were or were not able to do during remote learning. Other critics argue that test results will reflect more on a students’ socioeconomic status than about their academic ability. However, supporters stand firm that data will provide valuable information to inform future instruction as well as to empower students and parents.

“There’s going to be such a wide range...when students come back in the fall, the teachers are going to assess, then create learning plans for children depending on their level of learning,” says DPS School Board President Dr. Carrie Olson when talking about the need to measure progress.

“Teachers will...think: where are they now, where should they be and where might their holes be. It may not be the first day of school but within the first couple of weeks, to be able to say [as a parent] I want to know how to help my child at home, can you let me know how they're doing in reading, writing, whatever the subject is, what are the grade level expectations and what can I do to help.”

In my first grade classroom, I had students that were across the academic spectrum: from Pre-K levels to third or fourth grade. However, not only did collecting data benefit my own instructional practices to address these differences, but it was something that every single student looked forward to. Whether they were reading at the highest level in the class or the lowest, each student proudly displayed their current level and their goal levels on our class data tracker.

Those students understood: we don’t check our progress so we can brag, or make others feel bad, and most importantly there is no “winner” because it was never a fair race from the start. 

We all come in at different places and we grow at different speeds, but we can only succeed if we are empowered enough to know where we are, where we want to go, and what we need to do to get there together.


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