School & District Management

Are Too Many Students Working Below Grade Level?

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 25, 2018 4 min read
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The United States’ system of mandatory public schooling operates under an unspoken social contract with students: Work hard, get good grades, and you can succeed in college, work, and life.

Students are by and large holding up their end of the bargain, but too many schools break the contract by giving them classwork below grade level—leaving them underprepared for what’s next, a new study concludes.

What’s more, the report finds that when given the opportunity, students of color and disadvantaged students do almost as well as their peers on challenging, grade-level assignments, so the notion that such students can’t or won’t do rigorous work “is a pernicious assumption, and it is wrong,” said Daniel Weisberg, the CEO of the research, teacher-training, and advocacy organization TNTP, which conducted the study.

“This is about systemic inequity, systemic bias, and racism,” he said.

The findings, released Tuesday, are based on a huge amount of data collected during the 2016-17 school year from four unnamed school districts and one charter network working with TNTP. Though not a nationally representative sample, the districts are geographically diverse, differ in size, and one of them is rural.

The study features two notable sources of data rarely used in education research: real-time surveys of more than 3,100 students as they sat through their classes, and analyses of nearly 22,000 pieces of student work. To determine whether assignments were on grade level, analysts used a framework developed in-house to vet whether the content aligned with state grade-level standards, gave students independent practice to master the skills, and connected the lesson to real-world contexts.

The Study, By the Numbers

TNTP collected thousands of examples of student work and real-time survey data for students to capture what kinds of assignments students were asked to do and how engaged they were in the lessons.

4,674 assignments representing 21,993 samples of student work in grades K-12 Teachers identified whether the assignments were state-developed, district-adopted or -developed, or self-made. Each assignment was rated on its content, whether it gave students the opportunity to practice skills, and for its relevance, for a total number of points of 0 to 6, with a 4 representing grade-appropriate.

942 lessons across 422 classrooms, rated on five domains by subject experts on a 0-to-3 scale. Only lessons with an average domain rating of 2 were considered.

Student Engagement
28,575 responses representing day-to-day experiences of 3,133 students’ perceptions and attitudes towards their class work. Older students gave survey feedback up to six times during a class; younger students were surveyed at the end of class.

Teacher Attitudes
252 surveys of teachers on their experience, beliefs, and knowledge about their state content standards and expectations for student success.

Courses and Tests
Course grades, trajectories, and standardized test scores for all students in the four districts and one charter network (not just surveyed students).

Among the findings:

• Across all districts, 71 percent of students succeeded on the assignments they were given, but only 17 percent of those assignments were actually on grade level.

• Students qualifying for government-subsidized meals and students of color were consistently given lower-level assignments and experienced weaker teaching. Some classrooms serving predominantly students of color offered not a single assignment that was on grade level.

• Importantly, those students did only slightly less well on the harder, grade-level assignments than their peers when actually given them.

• Students of color were more engaged in their classwork when taught by a teacher of the same race, and those teachers had higher expectations for them than white teachers did.

• Students’ test-score results were consistently linked to teachers’ expectations that their students could master high standards.

• Students of color received letter grades that were inflated relative to their performance on standardized tests.

• In all but one district, students of color, low-income students, English-learners, and students with IEPs, or individualized education programs, were less likely to take a rigorous sequence of classes. The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

An Opportunity Myth?

The report accompanying the study makes the provocative claim that if students were consistently given stronger, more engaging assignments and instruction, their academic achievement would noticeably improve, but the underlying research is less clear about this link.

Using statistical methods on a small subset of the classrooms, TNTP researchers found some preliminary evidence of a relationship between assignment quality and student learning, but not a conclusive one.

“It’s an intriguing finding that calls for the next study to establish causality,” said Thomas Kane, an economist of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “If you could get a group of teachers to stick with a grade-level curriculum and not substitute their own materials, what level of support would that take? And would that have an impact on student achievement?”

The study also raises fresh questions about “differentiating” instruction to different students’ academic levels, Kane said. Teachers are often told to “scaffold” for students who enter class with weaker skills.

“There is some degree of meeting kids where they are that you’d expect and that would be appropriate for children’s learning,” he said. “Are we pushing the boundary harder for some kids than for others? I think TNTP would argue that we are.”

Indeed, the report surmises that few teachers have been taught to master differentiation effectively, and in reality this means giving students work below what they’re capable of.

Linking Other Findings

In all, the findings bolster those from a variety of other studies. Analyses of high school transcripts, for example, suggest that students of color get watered-down content even when they take rigorous course sequences.

And smaller-scale analysis of classroom assignments document a wide range in the complexity and difficulty of what students are asked to master in supposedly “college and career ready” classes.

Still other research links teacher expectations to student achievement, with black students in particular bearing the brunt of lower teacher expectations for their performance, compared to white students.

The report concludes by urging districts to audit what their students learn on a day-in-day-out basis, including by asking students regularly about their experiences in classrooms, and to make having high expectations a priority for educators.

“There aren’t huge price tags attached to any of these,” Weisberg said. “A grade-appropriate assignment doesn’t cost more than an assignment that’s three grade levels behind.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2018 edition of Education Week as Class Work Lacks Rigor, Review Says


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