Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Don’t Rush to ‘Diagnose’ Learning Loss With a Formal Test. Do This Instead

By Catherine Gewertz — August 05, 2020 9 min read
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The question is hovering as teachers, principals, and district leaders plan for a uniquely challenging school year: How are we going to diagnose our students’ learning loss so we can catch them up on everything they missed?

But experts warn that it’s risky to frame the question that way. They’re worried that educators, under pressure to recover unfinished learning, will use formal tests to gauge learning loss, and then get stuck in a remediating cycle that prevents students from moving fully into grade-level learning.

EdWeek interviewed a dozen assessment and instruction experts and reviewed 17 guidance documents and articles by education organizations and think tanks and distilled their concerns and advice. Here’s what you need to know to avoid the danger zones when you’re figuring out what students need.

My district says we need to test all our students to figure out what they missed last year. Are you saying we shouldn’t do that?

It depends on what you mean by “test.” Most experts are urging teachers to avoid starting the year with a formal or standardized assessment. Instead, start with instruction. That might feel counterintuitive: How do I know what to teach if I don’t know what my students missed?

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The trick here is to expand your idea of what the word “assessment” means. Think about the many strategies teachers use to gauge how well students are understanding something as they’re learning it. Well-crafted questions, games, tasks, or discussion prompts are part of teaching, but they serve as informal assessments, too.

These kinds of strategies—known in the testing field as formative assessments or practices—are what most experts are strongly advising teachers to prioritize when school begins.

Does that mean we shouldn’t use a test that commercial publishers sell?

Not necessarily. It’s helpful to think about this in phases (when’s the right time for these different kinds of tests?) and in layers (who needs the information from these different kinds of tests?).

In the first phase of the new school year, most experts are urging schools to focus on building community and belonging and getting a sense of students’ emotional, physical, and social needs. As that gets under way, teachers can begin instruction, with lessons that are fun and interesting, but also designed to reveal whether students have a good grasp of the few key skills and concepts they’ll need to succeed in that first unit of instruction. Those techniques help teachers adjust instruction so students can do well.

There is a place for commercially designed tests—the ones built into good-quality curricula or bought separately to measure growth, verify mastery of a specific unit, or diagnose struggles. If they’re well designed, those assessments can help principals and district leaders figure out where to deploy resources and supports or identify students who might need further attention.

But since many of those assessments can feel like “official” sit-down tests—some take an hour or more—experts are strongly urging schools to wait at least a few weeks. Far more important, they say, is forging a positive learning environment, supporting students’ well-being, and starting grade-level instruction in a way that immediately adjusts to students’ needs.

Downloadable Guide: Assessing Students This Fall: Focus on the Classroom

Teachers use these informal testing-by-teaching strategies all the time. Why are they suddenly top priority?

Precisely because so many children are returning to school (whether in-person or remotely) having missed some learning and having experienced COVID-related trauma. It makes little sense to start the year with a formal test when students are more likely to score low and can end up feeling that they’re already falling short.

The test-first approach can also put educators into a deficit mindset, where they are looking for last year’s gaps to fill, instead of focusing on what students need right now. Leading thinkers on this are advocating that teachers take a “just in time” approach to remediating unfinished learning, not a “just in case” approach.

“Just in time” remediation means that teachers avoid trying to teach every standard or skill from last year. They can work together—or use guides like this one from Student Achievement Partners—to identify the handful of most essential skills and knowledge that students need to succeed at grade level right now, in a given unit. Then they’d create lessons that would shed light on where each student is with those essentials.

“What students need isn’t necessarily the same thing as what they missed,” said Thomas Guskey, an expert on testing and grading who’s a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky.

OK, so we should hold off on the “official” tests.

Yes, but it might take some fortitude. Given the level of learning disruption caused by COVID-19, “districts will face a strong temptation to test students immediately upon re-entry to school, identify their academic ‘deficits,’ and reteach or remediate,” the Council of the Great City Schools said in its advice on school reopening.

“According to research, both are largely ineffective practices” that can alienate students from school and exacerbate inequitable access to grade-level instruction, the Council wrote. Districts should “avoid the misuse of standardized testing” and instead “keep the focus on grade-level content and rigor, addressing learning gaps as needed.”

It’s also particularly important this year to avoid using tests—even data gathered from informal tests embedded in instruction—as gatekeepers. Miring students in remediation and barring them from grade-level study would only serve to “further marginalize” them, the Council of Chief State School Officers said in its reopening guidance.

So, what does testing-by-teaching look like?

Dylan Wiliam, an authority on formative assessment, offered an example in elementary level math. If he’s about to teach a unit on adding fractions, he said, he doesn’t want to find out whether his class knows how to add fractions. He wants to know whether they can generate sequences of equivalent fractions, a key precursor skill they need to find the least common denominator. He’ll come up with activities to see if they can do that and see where students need more support.

Katherine Smith, who oversees assessments, research, and professional learning in Lyons Township High School District 204 in LaGrange, Ill., offered a glimpse of how it can look in social studies. A teacher could start the year with a K-W-L chart to find out what students already know, want to know, and have already learned, about the next unit. She could also create activities using primary source documents, charts, and graphs to gauge their skills in analyzing and drawing information from them.

A key trick of testing-by-teaching lies in structuring questions and discussion to elicit misconceptions. “Class, David has just said that a square is a trapezoid. What do you think, and why do you think so?” Teachers want to be sure to blend feedback from discussions with techniques that ensure responses from every student, like showing a “thumbs up or thumbs down,” or collecting entry or exit tickets.

Experts vary on their level of comfort with using traditional gauges like multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes. Some think they feel too much like “official” tests to use early in this school year. Others say it’s fine, as long as they’re short and used only to yield insight for teachers, not to grade students.

Some of these things could be challenging remotely. How can I adapt them for distance learning?

Many in-class techniques, from Socratic discussion to exit tickets, can be easily shifted to live, remote instruction. Teachers can also use online tools like instant polling, breakout room discussions, digital hand-raising, and writing on a virtual whiteboard to get instant feedback on students’ learning.

If teachers are working only asynchronously, they’ll face a little time lag, which isn’t ideal in adjusting instruction quickly. But they can still get pretty quick feedback by asking students to do short writing assignments, upload an image of a completed math problem, or share their thinking in a short recording on their cell phones or with apps like Flipgrid or Seesaw. They could also do short daily phone or text check-ins.

Should teachers approach informal assessments the same way in all grades and subjects?

No. The key precursor skills teachers are looking for varies by grade level and the nature of the subject. Not all topics will have prerequisite skills or knowledge; students don’t need to know geography to succeed in civics, for instance.

Math often builds on prior knowledge, so an elementary teacher would want to design activities to elicit students’ knowledge of place value, for instance, as she begins a unit on multi-digit addition. Not all math is linear, though, so teachers should analyze each unit for its precursor skills as they go.

Reading in grade 3 and higher generally requires teachers to scaffold students up to grade-level text, so assessment techniques can focus on ascertaining the background knowledge and vocabulary that might hinder that access.

Reading in grades K-2, however, requires something different: Teachers must figure out how well students have mastered all the components of early reading, and design strategies to cover them all, in a research-based sequence, if students have missed them.

You’re not saying that “just in time” remediation will be sufficient for everyone, are you?

No. Schools will likely need to dive deeper into missed material with some students, providing extra learning time, one-on-one tutoring, and other interventions to help students regain lost ground. Fresh ideas about ways to deploy teachers can also offer additional support to students.

My curriculum doesn’t have very good assessment strategies or tools built in. Are there good resources that can guide me as I design my own?

There are a number of item banks that have questions teachers can use in informal tests or to design class discussions around, to gauge students’ learning. Diagnosticquestions.com has 20,000 free questions. Teachers in states that use the Smarter Balanced assessment can search its new item bank, “Tools for Teachers.” A collection managed by New Meridian, which inherited and built upon the item bank from the PARCC assessment consortium, also offers released questions teachers can use.

Curriculum publishers have been getting in on the question of classrooms assessments, too. A project by the Collaborative for Student Success produced a list of publishers whose embedded assessments align with the priority content identified by Student Achievement Partners.

Some states and districts are also posting resources that can help teachers design classroom assessments. California, for instance, recently released guidance designed to help its teachers create formative assessments.

EdWeek consulted a number of sources for this story. In alphabetical order, they are: Chris Barron, senior director of communications, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium; Michael Casserly, executive director, Council of the Great City Schools; Dale Chu, independent consultant, Assessment HQ; Thomas Guskey, professor emeritus, University of Kentucky; and Jim Cowen, executive director, Collaborative for Student Success; Rebecca Kockler, independent consultant; Scott Marion, executive director, Center for Assessment; Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director, CCSSO; Scott Norton, deputy executive director of programs, CCSSO; Lynn Olson, independent consultant; Mora Segal, CEO, ANet; Katherine Smith, coordinator of assessments and research, Lyons Township High School District 204; Michelle Spoonemore, academic dean, Emery/Weiner School; Olga Vargas, vice president for marketing, New Meridian; Joanne Weiss, independent consultant; Dylan Wiliam, professor emeritus of educational assessments, UCL Institute of Education.

Documents: “3 Principles for Assessments During Instructional Recovery and Beyond,” ANet (May 2020); “A Planning Framework for the 2020-21 School Year, Volume 1” Los Angeles County Office of Education (May 2020); “Addressing Unfinished Learning,” Council of the Great City Schools (June 2020); “Assessment Considerations for Fall 2020,” S. Marion, B. Gong, W. Lorie (June 2020); “Blueprint for Testing,” FutureEd (July 2020); “COVID-19 Response: Diagnostic Assessment,” Education Reform Now (May 2020); “Curriculum Publisher Information to Support Learning During COVID,” Collaborative for Student Success (July 2020); “Guidance on Diagnostic and Formative Assessments,” California Department of Education (July 2020); “LEAP 360 Diagnostic Mapping,” Louisiana Department of Education; “Learning as We Go: Principles for Effective Assessment During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Center on Reinventing Public Education (July 2020); “School Reopening Toolkit: Assessing Student Learning,” Tennessee Department of Education (June 2020); “Strong Start 2020: School Reopening Guidelines & Resources,” Louisiana Department of Education (July 2020); “Restart & Recovery: Considerations for Teaching and Learning: Academic Guidance,” and “Restart & Recovery: Assessment Considerations for Fall 2020,” Council of Chief State School Officers (July 2020); “School Reentry Framework and Toolkits,” Instruction Partners (July 2020); “When School is Back in Session, Where Will We Begin?” Thomas R. Guskey, ASCD In Service (June 2020); “You Say Tomato: Concerns About the Diagnostic Assessment Rubric,” S. Marion, Center for Assessment (June 2020).

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