By the time struggling students reach middle school, it’s pretty obvious it took time for them to get several grade levels behind. It’s also obvious we have numerous ways to help these students. I’m guessing many other submissions to Wonkathon 2019 describe these strategies and approaches. What isn’t so obvious, however, is what’s causing some students to struggle. That’s why I’m suggesting the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind is to do a better job of following their progress, or lack of it, in the long term.
I’m a teacher of English language learners, so perhaps that’s why I realize the power of the long-term view. Widely-recognized research in second-language acquisition tells us ELLs need five to seven years to reach full academic proficiency, so specialists like me regularly support ELLs who may be several grade levels behind. Classroom teachers often worry about these “so low” students, so it’s important to follow ELLs’ progress toward proficiency and remind their teachers that language learning takes time. In most cases, ELLs are making acceptable progress. When teachers don’t know their ELLs’ history, they risk being too hard on themselves and their students. ELLs can be behind, but because we are tracking their long-term progress, we know why.
My suggestion works for all students not only ELLs. Looking at aggregate data over several years can help us diagnose the cause of lagging achievement. Then we can determine which strategy or approach is best. Unfortunately, we collect mountains of data on every student, but it’s not in comprehensible form. Teachers and administrators need student information that is not only collected, but collated. Principals, are hard-copy student records still kept at your school? I thought so. Teachers, can you access your students’ results on all standardized assessments at the click of a computer mouse? Neither can I. Counselors, can you see the total picture of a student’s progress since that student started school? Of course you can’t, and that’s the problem. We keep hard copies of permanent files filled with old report cards, student papers, and snippets of information. We use different software programs to access scores from different standardized assessments. We plaster data walls with post-it notes. We have silos full of fragmented snapshots of student performance but nothing telling a coordinated, coherent story. It’s the twenty-first century; we can and need to do better. Instead of students working with technology, we need to start making technology work for our students, especially our struggling students, the ones several grade levels behind.
Not only do we need data collation that gives us a long-term story for each student, but we also need aggregated data for cohorts of students. That way we can easily see if the cause of a problem is systemic or individual. Consider how long-term, big-picture data could have easily helped diagnose the cause of students’ difficulties in these cases:
- A high school counselor didn’t have access to assessment information about her school’s ELLs, but claimed a student was “doing fine.” After repeated requests to her district’s central administration, the counselor finally got access to English assessment information for her school’s ELLs. She then learned the “doing fine” student had tested at a basic level of English proficiency—for the previous three years. That’s not doing fine. Long-term assessment information would have added context to this counselor’s initial evaluation of the student.
- A third grade student enrolled in her third school in three years. Her hard copy permanent folder finally arrived at her new school months after she did. It wasn’t very helpful anyway—historical assessment information was missing, and since the student had lived in several states, none of this was available online. Teachers at her new school rolled up their sleeves and started assessments from scratch.
- A news article about Michigan’s third grade reading law discussed students in danger of being retained if they were reading more than one grade below grade level at the end of the school year. The article, in passing, mentioned the students had had four different teachers the previous year in second grade, only two of whom were certified teachers. A total picture of these students’ schooling could very well show us their lack of progress in second grade was due to structural factors, not individual student deficits.
What keeps us from using data in a more comprehensible way? We’re already collecting the information, but school districts lack staff to input the data and funding to buy appropriate software for interpreting it. We spend huge sums on technology, but instead we should use these resources to address our data overload problem. My approach isn’t an answer to the question of how to best help students who are several grade levels behind, but it’s a beginning. It can help all students in all subjects. It’s sustainable, too, because it can use the technology and data we already have to help us gather and interpret information. We shouldn’t wait to write students’ stories until after they’ve been struggling for several years. We should begin these stories when students start school. Even simple data points like absences or moves can be significant when the same information over several years is connected to other information. Let’s stop looking at snapshots of our students’ deficits and start looking at the long-term causes. We’ve got all the answers; we just need long-term, aggregated data to show us which answers to apply.