Focus your efforts: part five of an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020

By Chris Jarosh

This is the fifth in a series of blogs outlining an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close their buildings and administer teaching remotely instead. The next blogs in this series will be released weekly and you’ll be able to view them all here.

Imagine education leaders, researchers, and teachers gathering for a summit focused on evidence-based strategies for reading instruction. A primary school NQT at the summit explains that she has poured over her interim assessment data is alarmed at what she’s found: “I could see that the students were not learning to read, but I didn’t know what to do.” With support from more experienced colleagues, however, she discovers what to do: identify the most critical skills for learning to read and focus daily instruction there.

As you reflect on the many unknowns around back-to-school (BTS) 2020, you may feel as if you’re facing another “first year of teaching” — but with one key difference: this time, you know exactly what to do. Over the course of this blog series, we’ve focused on using the basics of assessment to inform teaching and learning. You’ve remained flexible in considering varied school-opening scenarios, and in establishing baselines for measuring proficiency and growth. You’ve considered both the academic and the social-emotional needs of students, teachers, and the wider community.

Your focus has been unwavering, which is no easy task! Focus is more than simply paying attention: it’s a state of mind.

Understanding states of mind

As Sood (2013) points out, we operate in two states of mind — default and focus. Both states are critical to survival.

In the default state, you are attuned to everything (e.g. breathing, maintaining heart rhythm, sitting upright) while ready to spring into action when focus is required.

When your brain is in the focus state, it engages your “task-positive network” and “mutes the dialogue” of some tasks, so that you are fully immersed in the present experience. In this mode, you have clarity, you have direction, and you get things done.

At this point in planning for BTS 2020, most educators are operating in the default state and attending to everything. For example, school leaders, teachers, parents, and the community are evaluating multiple onsite scenarios to return to school, as well as a collection of blended learning  models. Furthermore, as you analyse the impact of different remote learning experiences, you’re looking to understand which learners thrived and which ones did not. Educationally speaking, we are operating in default mode and attending to everything (with immense efficiency), yet are prepared to spring into action when focus is required.

Two ends of a continuum

In addition to considering where learning happens, thinking how each student thrives requires concentrated focus. As you determine where students are in the context of year- or subject-level placing, what they know, and what they’re ready to learn, you’ll also need to consider approaches to remediate learning that was disrupted by the pandemic. Decisions about teaching and learning find focus within two ends of a continuum:

  1. Providing instruction at year level at a slower pace, with attention to prerequisite skills, scaffolding, and tutoring;
  2. Meeting learners where they are with targeted instruction to close skill gaps.

Star Assessments, along with your knowledge of your data and classroom dynamics, provide information and resources to bring to light focal points for student learning. In this blog, we explore scenarios and provide strategies for doing just this — in other words, we will look at designing instruction that’s focused on the most critical skills for accelerating student learning.

How do you know which skills are most critical?

The backbone of Star Assessments is an empirically validated learning progression for both reading and maths. Mosher (2011) describes the idea of a learning progression in this way:

“Kids learn. They start out by knowing and being able to do little, and over time they know and can do more.”

— Mosher (2011)

In other words, learning to perform specific tasks happens in a somewhat consistent pattern, over a somewhat predictable amount of time. Mosher expands his discussion of learning progressions from what children know and can do to how their thinking becomes more sophisticated as they respond to instruction and experience both in and out of school.

Renaissance has been working with learning progressions in reading and maths for over a decade, creating progressions with the NFER based on the English Curriculum. Our experts take the educational standards and break them down into discrete, teachable skills. Then, working in consultation with leading authorities in reading and maths, we organise these skills in the most ideal teachable order, so educators can help students move along the pathway to greater mastery.

Using Focus Skills to accelerate learning

“Learning progressions show the steps between standards — the focus of day-to-day learning.”

— Margaret Heritage

During the process of translating educational standards into discrete skills, we were able to identify a subset of skills that are fundamental to students’ development at each year level. We refer to these as Focus Skills.

The Renaissance process for identifying Focus Skills is profiled by Kirkup et al. (2014), who state that these skills meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Essential to the progression, involving concepts learners must master in order to move to the next step
  • Supports the development of other skills, serving as prerequisites for skills to come
  • Reflects the emphasis of the curriculum.
What about the non-Focus Skills?

We recognise that acquiring any new skill impacts learning, but multiple studies have suggested that the typical year-level list of standards represents more than can be taught in a single school year. To accelerate learning, we need to identify the most critical skills at each year level, meaning those that drive the most student growth. As Fogarty, Kerns, and Pete (2017) note, “We have intuitively known that not all skills are created equal, but we often fail to consistently use that knowledge in our planning and prioritisation.”

When you can easily identify the most critical skills, you know exactly where to focus instruction and resources to move students forward. Just as importantly, you also know the most critical skills from prior year levels, which helps you to determine what to review and — when needed — what to set aside. The well-known Law of the Vital Few (also known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule) is true for Focus Skills as well: 80% of the results come from 20% of “the knowledge acquired, or the skills developed, within a domain” (Lemov et al., 2012). For BTS 2020, Focus Skills can become your “vital few,” with intense work on these skills producing the greatest returns in student learning.

Where can you see Renaissance Focus Skills?

They’re highlighted on the Instructional Planning Report in Star Reading and Star Maths. Teachers have the option of generating the Instructional Planning Report at the class level to identify the “vital few” for core instruction. Likewise, teachers can create instructional groups based on students’ Star data, and they can then run an Instructional Planning Report for each group. Finally, teachers may choose to run the Instructional Planning Report for individual students.

To see this process in action, let’s take the example of a Year 5 student named Kyle, who receives both year-level instruction with scaffolding, and additional supportive instruction to address learning gaps. Kyle’s Star Reading score suggests the skills he’s ready to learn, which are mostly at the Year 4 level. All of these skills are listed on Star’s Instructional Planning Report and are organised by domain, as shown below.

Note that in the Engaging and Responding to Texts domain, Kyle is ready to work on three skills. However, the report clearly identifies the Focus Skill with a double chevron (>>) — Explain the use of expressive, descriptive and figurative language — which is essential to Kyle’s growth. In fact, we need to accelerate Kyle’s growth substantially this school year, to help him meet SATs expectations. Concentrating on the Focus Skills will be an important step in accelerating his learning.

Closing COVID-19 learning gaps

We began this blog with the story of an NQT who helped her students close gaps in learning by focusing on what matters the most. Now that you know the power of Focus Skills and how to access them in Star Assessments , we hope you see why these skills will be so critical in the new school year — and the key role they can play in helping students make up lost ground resulting from this year’s unexpected school closures.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll continue this discussion by focusing on the concept of student mastery — and why mastery is a thoroughly achievable goal in the 2020–2021 school year.

The next instalment of this blog will be published on 17th July 2020, and you’ll be able to view it here. Follow us on social media to stay up to date and share your thoughts with us.


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