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What Can Teachers Do Now to Support Next Year’s Teachers and Learners?

Christine Lyon
Leslie Nabors Oláh

In a matter of months, learning and assessment has been radically transformed. Educators have moved from assessing student learning through in-person formative or summative assessment to online learning where check-ins with students may not be as regular, and where some students may not participate as often. One recent study suggests that high-school students who were previously struggling academically may be the most at risk with a move to all-online instruction.

As a result of this shift, many teachers have been encouraged to focus on fewer standards and prioritize those that are most important for student success in later grades in order to accommodate learning and plan for instruction with little lead time or systematic support. The federal government has taken unprecedented steps as well, granting all states’ waivers for testing requirements, with many cancelling end-of-year summative assessments.

When schools reopen it is likely that the difference between the highest and lowest achieving students will be amplified. NWEA® has estimated the potential learning loss for students due to COVID-19, finding that learning loss could be as large as a full-grade level in mathematics and will impact underserved students the most.

These issues will create an information vacuum in the fall. Preparing our teachers to prepare one another is how we’ll be able to identify where instruction begins next school year. School leadership should also share in taking on some of this preparation.

So, what are some effective steps teachers can undertake now to support one another and learners as they take on a new class and new students in the fall?

  • Promote formative assessment strategies when possible: District support for teachers to help them identify where learners are in their learning, where they are going, and how to get there is key. These discussions could be orchestrated through online discussions between teams of teachers focused on core standards; the collaborative development and sharing of instructional tools, tasks and activities and assessments; and through focused feedback from coaches and administrators.
  • Focus on actionable feedback rather than grades: When possible, stop grading. Many districts are moving from number or letter grades to systems of complete or incomplete work or bands of grades. Use this time you are saving on grading to provide meaningful feedback, allowing students to understand concepts in more depth, and their revisions can provide evidence about what students know or understand and where they are struggling. This type of action-oriented feedback can further support learning when student-teacher interaction limited. Action-oriented feedback, however, is only effective if students are also provided with opportunities to revise their work and demonstrate a new level of understanding.
  • Focus on what the student was last known to be learning: In the major subjects, scores and grades are less important than a brief description of what the student was last known to be learning. An English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher might note who in his or her class was learning how to use simple past and progressive past tenses in writing. An exception would be any scores that have direct instructional implications, such as those from early literacy screening tools.
  • Document student progress on key standards that could be adapted for the current situation: Documenting what students understand about key standards at the end of the year can support instructional and remedial decisions the following year. One way to approach this is to create a table that aggregates information at the class or grade level and can be sorted by the standards most students have achieved or need to continue to address next school year.
  • Identify any struggles with content in the major subjects that would need to be immediately addressed: An elementary school teacher would want to note who in his or her class still struggles with place value in multi-digit multiplication. The current teacher could hold a one-on-one meeting with the student to try to understand the source of the difficulty, misunderstanding, or misconception. Information like this could help next year’s teacher at the beginning of the year.
  • Confer with the school counselor or learning support specialist about any academic or non-academic supports: This includes any challenges that may be faced by the student, especially if not documented in an IEP or 504 plan. One example might be if, during remote learning, a student needed more time to complete assignments because he or she was sharing a computer with two siblings. Struggles that were documented in the IEP or 504 plan and exacerbated by remote learning could be highlighted. A student who has a documented need for hard copy literature assignments may not have had access to the books, articles, or other source material in hard copy form during remote learning.

As we end one school year and consider the next, in the absence of spring testing administration and data about student progress, we must help our colleagues kick off instruction in the fall with information that can help keep student’s learning moving forward, uninterrupted.

Leslie Nabors Oláh is a Managing Research Scientist in Research & Development at ETS. Christine Lyon is a Lead Research Project Manager in Research & Development at ETS.