The Biden administration recently approved Colorado’s request to ease the burden of administering state assessments because of the pandemic. The state’s application had far more to do with health and safety, proctoring logistics, and a political détente between testing advocates and opponents than anything pedagogical. But its approval may end up unwittingly creating a blueprint for policies that can help overcome a challenge far thornier than test administration—addressing learning loss in math.
Colorado’s plan calls for students in third through eighth grade to alternate taking a summative assessment in English language arts and math each year. This spring, students in the third, fifth, and seventh grades will take the ELA test, and those in the fourth, sixth, and eighth will take the math test. This approach allowed for the preservation of key assessment-related guardrails while taking into account the profound disruptions that students experienced this year.
This only applies to the spring of 2021, but a long-term testing regimen that is divorced from the annual school-year cycle would open up one of the most essential ingredients to addressing math learning loss—multi-year learning progressions.
In almost all middle schools, students are taught math through a single-year learning progression. Teachers focus their instruction on forty to fifty math skills a year—from multiplying fractions to surface area to standard deviations—depending on the grade level they are assigned to.
Single year progressions work fine for students who consistently stay on grade level. But many don’t. In fact, the majority middle school students were performing below grade level before the pandemic. For them, learning gaps from earlier years continued to accumulate, since the concepts they missed in one year were often foundational to what they needed to learn in the next year. A seventh grade student, for example, who’s missing key foundational skills from the fifth and sixth grades will struggle in a seventh grade class and end up falling even further behind. The forty to fifty seventh grade math skills are simply the wrong set for that student to tackle at that time if they’re to ultimately achieve college and career readiness. New Classrooms, of which I’m a Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, wrote extensively about this phenomenon in 2019 in our report The Iceberg Problem.
Pandemic-related learning losses have only made this problem more acute. But they’ve also created new public will for solutions to this challenge. The question remains, as ever: How do schools balance the aspiration to focus on grade-level content with the reality of where students are truly starting from?
The expectations inherent in grade-level standards matter—but they are not all that matters. Going back and addressing key foundational learning gaps is an essential part of acceleration in math. Learning about percentages without a firm grasp of decimals, or probability without a firm understanding of multiplication, isn’t going to work—no matter how talented the teacher or how high the expectations. A recent study of Saga Education’s high school tutoring model, for example, found it to be “among the finest interventions ever rigorously studied at the high school level.” Its participating students spent roughly half of each session remediating skill deficits.
Addressing pre-grade learning gaps comes with a cost, though: time. Grade-level standards themselves typically take a full school year to cover. So the cold reality of a single-year learning progression can make it implausible to spend any real time going backwards.
This is where multi-year learning progressions come in. The idea is to hold steadfast to the notion of getting students to proficiency, while recognizing that some students will need more time to get there because the volume of pre-grade and on-grade skills required to catch up and get ahead are unlikely to be learned over a single school year.
To illustrate, imagine a seventh grade teacher with several students who begin the school year at a fifth grade math level. Rather than focusing instruction on the forty to fifty seventh grade skills, the teacher could prioritize instruction around forty to fifty skills that students did not master in the fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh grades and that are critical to succeeding in the eighth grade (while math is cumulative, some skills are more relevant to eighth grade proficiency than others).
In effect, participating students would be engaged in a two-year course focused on the specific skills required to get to eighth grade proficiency, including all related predecessor skills, rather than a one-year course focused on seventh grade standards and another one-year course focused on eighth grade standards. Only after achieving that objective would some of the deprioritized skills then come to the forefront.
While this approach would give the student the best chance to get back on track, it could mean not covering some of the seventh grade skills that will appear on the seventh grade test. This can make some teachers and administrators nervous, given the nexus between grade-level assessment and school accountability. But with no seventh grade summative test to worry about, the opportunity to be more creative with multi-year progressions becomes more viable—especially if multi-grade adaptive tests are used to regularly measure if the student is truly on track to achieve proficiency by the end of the eighth grade.
Ultimately, for this student, the eighth grade test is what would matter most for accountability purposes.
Multi-year learning progressions shouldn’t apply to everyone. It’s for those students whose current starting point makes it highly improbable that they’ll learn all of the pre-grade and on-grade skills required to achieve grade-level proficiency in a single year. But sanctioned, multi-year learning progressions would signal to teachers and administrators that playing a thoughtful long game is now an option.
Doing away with summative tests in certain years to allow for multi-year progressions will understandably make some advocates squeamish. The elimination of some high-stakes assessments can mean some teachers won’t feel accountable for outcomes, or some schools will hide ineffective teachers in untested grades.
But whether a school is using single-year or mulit-year progressions, the end goal remains constant: college and career readiness. Multi-year learning progressions simply provide a viable path for far more students to get there while continuing to adhere to the principles of equity and transparency. And as a recent Fordham Institute study showed, it would still be possible to reliably compare achievement levels that span multiple years for purposes of accountability.
Finding the right balance between protective guardrails and innovation-enablers is the central issue facing policymakers and practitioners today. Colorado’s efforts to solve one problem may end up being a harbinger for how best to solve another one.