by Matt Hurt
There have always been students who have evidenced a year or more delay in their independent working ability. Unfortunately, our educational response to the pandemic of closing schools and offering virtual instruction has made this problem significantly worse (more on that here). Today there are significantly more students who are a year or more behind in their ability to work on grade level skills than before 2020.
The term “learning loss” has been used to describe the situation caused by our educational response to the pandemic. It seems that this term is an incorrect characterization of our current situation. To have lost something, one first must have had it. During the closures and subsequent offerings of virtual instruction many kids did not learn what they should have during that time. Some kids regularly participated in virtual instruction and they learned most of what they were taught. Some kids rarely if ever participated in virtual instruction and therefore didn’t learn what was expected. Unfortunately, the kids who were in the latter group tended to make up a significant part of our economically disadvantaged kids. This group typically has less structure in their homes to support these efforts.
For the purpose of this essay, everything discussed will be limited to the content areas of English and math. These skills (Standards of Learning or SOLs) are very well sequenced from Kindergarten through high school in such a manner that if students learn the skills from the previous grade, they have all of the prerequisites necessary for success in the following grade. These skills definitely build upon what was taught in previous grade levels, and any gaps in learning that a student has will result in negative consequences later on.
To understand the instructional process, we must first understand that there are a variety of skills that a student must master to be able to independently work on a given grade level. If a student has significant gaps in skill attainment, he or she will assess to be working on a lower grade level than the current grade placement. That does not necessarily mean that the student has learned nothing from the previous grade, but is missing some key aspects.
For example, SOL 2.6b requires students in second grade to determine the sums and differences of two numbers of no more than two digits. This is the first year students are expected to regroup, i.e. borrow for subtraction and carry numbers while adding. In third grade, SOL 3.3a requires kids to determine the sums and differences of two numbers of up to four digits. If the student did not master SOL 2.6b in second grade, he or she does not have the prerequisites to learn SOL 3.3a in third grade. The student may or may not have learned all other second grade skills. It is unlikely that any third grade student would have mastered no second grade skills unless they were simply not taught the content.
Traditionally, the remedy for students who are working below grade level has been to retain them for an extra year in a grade. This typically happens in the early elementary grades, and less so after that. The rationale is that the student is behind and could benefit from an extra year of instruction in that grade.
There are a few problems with retention. First, most kids if retained will turn 18 prior to completing 12th grade and earning a diploma. Many of the kids who end up in this situation understand that once they turn 18, they are no longer legally obligated to attend school, and they drop out. Second, most studies about retention show that while students demonstrate more success the second time around in a given grade level, the success diminishes over time and they end up in the same shape as students with similar problems who had not been retained.
So, since there are significant negative unintended consequences associated with retention, what is the solution to this problem? When we look at schools and divisions that demonstrate greater success with traditionally lower-performing subgroups, we find that they take a two-step approach to the problem. First, they ensure that their early elementary programs produce fewer students who have not mastered their skills in each grade level. Second, they expect their teachers to employ just-in-time remediation whenever they encounter a student who is missing prerequisite skills necessary for the grade level skill they are currently teaching.
We do not administer SOL tests in grades K-2, mostly because students in these grades do not typically have the maturity to independently attend to a task for a sufficient amount of time. Therefore, there are very few options for reliable, objective skill assessments for these students. Most assessment options require teachers to interact with students, which has the potential to produce unreliable data. Coupled with this problem, many educators expect that some kids can’t attain the skills required in these grades. Therefore, when those kids don’t master the skills, nothing more is done since they weren’t expected to master them in the first place.
In our schools and divisions that are most successful with our traditionally lower performing subgroups, educators believe that their K-2 students (as well as all of the other grades) are capable of learning what the state requires. These educators also believe that it is their job to ensure that happens. They typically assess students’ skill progression in a very rigorous manner (aligned to grade level standards), and then intervene with any student who begins to fall behind. Obviously, these folks are not 100 percent successful in this endeavor, but they are more successful than others as evidenced by third grade SOL scores. Third grade SOL tests essentially assess a culmination of learning in grades Kindergarten through third grade.
Just-in-time remediation is a critical part of an instructional program in all grades in these schools and divisions. This occurs when a teacher realizes that a student is struggling with a particular skill, usually shortly after the teacher introduces the skill during instruction. Immediately, the teacher works with the student to determine what is/are the prerequisite skill(s) that is/are lacking, and then provides additional help to fill that gap. Once this occurs, then the student is ready to learn the grade level skill. It is important to note that this remediation is instruction in addition to (not in lieu of) regular classroom instruction. This remediation typically occurs outside of class, such as during exploratory classes (PE, art, music, etc.), before school, or after school. In instances in which this happens most effectively, the just-in-time remediation is provided by the student’s classroom teacher.
In conclusion, we have a significant problem in that there are more students than ever who are behind in their skill attainment. Despite the fact that some states have passed laws to mandate retention of students who are behind, experience and research demonstrate that this practice does more harm than good. We have learned that it is critical as well as difficult to ensure a very strong and rigorous early elementary instructional program. We have also learned that just-in-time remediation is necessary to combat this problem.
Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan school districts.