Check for mastery: part six of an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020

By Chris Jarosh

This is the sixth 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.

As we noted at the beginning of this blog series, you may feel as if you have more questions than answers about back-to-school (BTS) 2020. Will you be able to safely reopen your school? How much will your students be affected by COVID-related learning loss? Will you have to make up all of the lost ground during the 2020–2021 school year? If so, where do you even begin?

This blog series will help you answer these questions, providing insights and tips on planning for multiple school-opening scenarios, on gathering baseline data, and on preparing to meet students’ social-emotional needs. We also discussed a type of content unique to Renaissance — our Focus Skills™ — which are the most essential reading and maths skills at each year level, based on our learning progressions. In this series, we’ve also suggested that concentrating instruction on Focus Skills will be critical for closing learning gaps in the new school year.

In this blog, we’ll continue this discussion by explaining why mastery is a realistic goal for every learner in the new school year. We’ll also consider the relationship between Focus Skills and mastery, and explain how you can best monitor and support each student’s journey toward mastery.

Proficiency vs. mastery: What’s the difference?

A lot of time and ink have been devoted to discussions, white papers, policies, and practices related to proficiency and mastery, often treating these terms as if they’re synonymous — but they are separate concepts.

Proficiency refers to meeting year-level benchmarks at specific points within the academic year. Reading proficiently by the end of Year 4, for example, indicates that a student is at the right point along the journey. By design, proficiency represents ‘good enough for now’ — and that’s fine. We need clearly delineated checkpoints along the way to see whether students are progressing at an appropriate pace. Are we on the right track? If not, how do we pivot? But even when a student has reached a specific point along the journey, the eventual destination — mastery — may not yet have been reached.

In contrast to proficiency, the French gave us the word mastery, which is described as ‘intellectual command,’ — a confident, authoritative grasp of learning. What would the 2020–2021 school year look like if students became confident in their mastery of Focus Skills — confident to the point that they saw themselves as authorities, for example, on comparing time in terms of seconds, minutes and hours (a Year 3 Focus Skill), or recognising and joining in with predictable phrases in stories and poems (a Year 1 Focus Skill), or evaluating the reliability of non-fiction sources (a Year 7 Focus Skill)?

Why mastery is the goal

A discussion of Focus Skills and mastery is important because, as Lemov et al. (2012) point out, “If you are practicing one of those important skills — the 20% of skills that drive 80% of the results — don’t stop when your participants ‘know how to do it’. Your goal with these 20% of skills is excellence, not mere proficiency.” Further, Lemov and his co-authors urge us to focus so that our students become “great at the most important things.”

This is how we will get students definitively back on track after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Further, these skills will transfer well in the future. A continued focus on mastering the most critical skills continually prepares learners for what is to come.

So, how do we gauge students’ mastery?

Mastering the critical areas

Because of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, many educators are facing questions they haven’t dealt with before. How can you best monitor the success of your remote learning activities? Are students still learning, even though they’re not physically in school? How do you monitor the efficacy of interventions? Perhaps your school has decided not to administer the Star Reading and Star Maths tests remotely this spring or summer. But going forward, you will have assessment options.

In our last blog we covered Focus Skills — the areas in the curriculum a student is next to develop based on their performance. But what about existing skills? Where is the student regarding their mastery of the year? As we move forward into BTS 2020 these questions will have even more significance.

With every test, a student generates a number of results. Of these on the Star Reading and Maths Diagnostic reports, each student will have a breakdown of domain scores — a domain score ranges from 1-100 and estimates a student’s percentage of mastery on year-appropriate skills. For instance, see Amy’s domain scores below.

Amy is in Year 4 and has taken her latest Star Reading test. As an educator, I can see that her percentage of Vocabulary-based skills in Year 4 is already estimated to be at 54%. However, her ability to Engage and Respond to Texts is at 34%, indicating a lower level of mastery. But what level of mastery should you expect from your students?

The estimates of mastery that you see for pupils are based on the expectations of the English National Curriculum for that year group: the system shows you mastery estimates against things that students are expected to know by the end of the year. Therefore, having a low domain score at the start of the year is not too concerning. But as you proceed throughout the academic year, we’d expect the domain scores to rise, and ideally approach 100% by the end of the year.

These mastery scores, however, are not the ideal indicators for instructional planning. Our mastery measures merely tell you how well your pupils are doing against the expectations of the English National Curriculum. The mastery measures are not an indicating the order to teach, as some domains’ skills are harder than others and require pre-requisite skills that fall under a different domain. For the best information on which skills to target for instruction, always refer to the Instructional Planning reports (as we mentioned in our last blog). The Instructional Planning reports highlight Focus skills — the skills that are most critical in student’s learning development.

While Focus Skills typically comprise anywhere from 20-40% of skills overall, depending on the domain, that does not mean we should allocate 20-40% of our time to them. We should allocate more. Fogarty, Kerns, and Pete (2017) call for essential skills to receive “disproportionate practice” (p. 95). Lemov, Woolway, and Yezzi note that “Your goal with these . . .  skills is excellence, not mere proficiency” (2012, pg. 30). “Automaticity,” and “fluency” are also terms that are relevant here. Remember what Lemov et al. noted: the goal “is to be great at the most important things” (pg. 31).

Monitoring interventions

Whether it’s typical interventions or pushing students to meet age expectations for reading and maths, Star Assessments have inbuilt resources to support educators to track progress in students’ development. Although we’ll cover growth more in the next blog, catching up with any learning lost over the COVID-19 period will be an ongoing task, with potentially different tactics used at different points in the year. It will be equally important for students not on track for mastery to be monitored in trying to close the learning gap.

With the Progress Monitoring report comes the ability to set Star targets. This can be done through calculating weekly growth over a specified date range, or by setting a rigid end goal. The benefit of this is that, however long or short the intervention is, it will allow you to visually measure the impact of interventions on attainment.

Star Assessments can be delivered as often as is necessary to track progress. Typically, we’d suggest limiting this to 4-6 times in an academic year for an entire cohort. But, with the long-term effects of COVID-19 on education uncertain, you may need to wait until BTS 2020 to make a decision on how frequently you test to track mastery of the Focus Skills.

Data and insights to close gaps in learning

This brings us to the final part of our discussion: Is mastery a realistic goal for the 2020‒2021 school year, given the ground that we’ll need to make up after this spring’s extended school closures?

In response to this question, picture a Reception student confidently leading her peers with predictable phrases in stories and poems. Or a Year 3 student having an ‘aha’ moment after guiding her classmates to finally get comparing seconds, minutes and hours and understand why it’s so important. Or a Year 7 student deep in debate, defending the reliability of an author’s word choice — and using evidence from the text to support their argument.

Mastery is not only possible, but absolutely critical for reversing COVID-related learning loss. Star Assessments provide tools to support you and your students every step of the way. We fully acknowledge that BTS 2020 will present unique challenges, but we also believe there are clear steps you can take to help every student thrive.

In our next blog, we’ll take an in-depth look at student growth, including how best to measure growth in the new school year.

The next instalment of this blog will be published on 24th July 2020, and you’ll be able to view it hereFollow us on social media to stay up to date and share your thoughts with us.

  • Fogarty, R., Kerns, G., & Pete, B. (2017). Unlocking student talent: The new science of developing expertise. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Marzano, R., et al. (2001). Classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Lemov, D., Woolway, E., & Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Rattan, A., and Good, C. (2012). “It’s OK—Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48(3): 731–737.
  • Stiggins, R. (2017). The perfect assessment system. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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