Abby Javurek, vice president of Educational Solutions at NWEA, was recently awarded first place for her submission to the Fordham Institute’s 2019 Wonkathon. Titled “Beyond the binary: We can foster equity in both opportunity and outcomes,” it explores how best to support student learning, especially for kids performing below grade level.
I sat down with Abby to learn more about her ideas. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
First things first: congrats on your first-place prize in this year’s Wonkathon. What prompted you to submit an idea?
Thanks. As you know, the Fordham Institute has a reputation for tackling a lot of tough issues in the education space and has been a change instigator and ally in accelerating learning for all kids. Participating in the Wonkathon seemed like a great opportunity to contribute to the conversation about how we best serve all kids. If you read the other entries, a lot of really complementary ideas are presented, so I felt like I was in good company.
In your article, you said, “We need to […] focus on blended approaches that help educators identify and embrace the tension points that help propel each student toward rigorous learning targets.” Can you say a bit about what kinds of blended approaches educators could try?
To date, folks have tended to look at teaching and learning with an either/or mentality, thinking that either we teach grade level content or we go off-grade for kids who are behind (or ahead of) expectations. But it isn’t that black and white. Teachers need the flexibility to meet kids where they are and help them find that “point of productive struggle” that helps them stretch toward what’s next.
[F]olks have tended to look at teaching and learning with an either/or mentality, thinking that either we teach grade level content or we go off-grade for kids who are behind (or ahead of) expectations. But it isn’t that black and white.”
This is top of mind for us as we build through-year assessment, NWEA’s newest solution. We’re using something called range achievement level descriptors (ALDs). These are descriptions within each academic standard that talk about what a student should be able to do as they move from a very early, basic understanding to more advanced, sophisticated understanding.
If we build assessments to measure where students are across these levels—not just if they are proficient or not—we can help teachers engage even struggling students in early grade-level content (or, if needed, directly relevant precursor skills from the previous grade). We can also help teachers challenge proficient kids to reach advanced levels of understanding before moving them into content from the next grade. This fosters the deeper learning required for college and career readiness.
What are some things teachers can do now to find the point of productive struggle for every child—and to encourage them to push through it?
I have three suggestions:
- Many states are already using ALDs or similar approaches. Teachers can get involved in looking at how they can use these to scaffold instruction and how they might even make improvements to existing ALDs so that they have higher utility in the classroom
- Teachers can build trajectory-based performance tasks. Christina Schneider, senior director of Psychometric Solutions at NWEA, explored these types of tasks recently on Teach. Learn. Grow., as did Kevin McCarthy, lead science specialist for Assessment Solutions at NWEA. Trajectory-based performance tasks allow teachers to see how students can integrate knowledge and skills across a range of standards, encourage students to engage in complex levels of thinking, and provide opportunities for fruitful interaction between teachers and students
- Educators can engage students in goal-setting for themselves. When educators and students can sit together and set challenging goals, kids feel they have some agency in their learning. Meaningful goals and regular check-ins allow students to see the progress they are making and celebrate their growth and success. This can be empowering in a classroom
You mentioned the importance of “supporting educators with the very real challenge of helping students—many of whom are several years behind.” What are a few things distict and school-level administrators can do right now to help classroom teachers?
A sustained professional learning plan that is informed by the needs of teachers is key. This might be a sustained focus on managing the social-emotional learning needs of students, or it might be deep engagement in thinking about how standards scaffold across grades to help teachers support students across the continuum of learning. It could also be assessment or data literacy that helps teachers identify gaps, strengths, and opportunities they might not have otherwise found in the classroom.
If we build assessments to measure where students are across […] levels—not just if they are proficient or not—we can help teachers engage even struggling students.”
Providing clear direction, support, and funding for high-quality curricula aligned to rigorous standards helps, too. Students and teachers benefit when instructional materials are aligned, engaging, and challenging and when there is some flexibility in how to use materials.
Administrators should also recognize and celebrate schools that are growing students a lot from fall to spring. When a student is significantly behind, it may be unrealistic to get them caught up in a short amount of time, but every bit of growth is adding value to that student’s life and contributing to long-term proficiency-gap closure. Some schools are making tremendous gains across the year, even if some kids aren’t proficient yet, and we can learn from their practices and share that information.
You also mentioned “sparks” that accelerate growth and their role in big learning gains. Is there anything educators can do to identify these sparks? What about the research community?
I can’t underscore enough the importance and relevance of using curriculum that is engaging and well aligned to college and career ready standards, or using well-written ALDs to ensure that as we work to meet kids where they are, we are not going too far back from what kids are ready to learn. Understanding the precursors to specific standards and skills, and identifying how students at differing levels can still access the grade-level standards and push themselves to think more deeply, is essential.
I can’t underscore enough the importance and relevance of using curriculum that is engaging and well aligned to college and career ready standards.”
As researchers, we can look at the data that we have to understand the differing learning pathways that students can take to get to some of the most critical skills. New technologies and things like AI and machine learning can help us understand connections in the data that we might otherwise overlook. There is a lot of promise in the future here for NWEA as we have a leading anonymized national database that can help us learn and share knowledge about key precursor skills—or sparks—that help students make big leaps in learning.
Conversations can be a catalyst for change. As educators begin to explore both what they value and student growth in the context of proficiency, what questions can they ask themselves and each other?
There are so many. Here are just a few:
- How well is my curriculum aligned to rigorous state standards and ALDs?
- How might I create assignments and performance tasks for use in my classroom that are accessible to all students, are reflective of grade-level content, and help each student challenge themselves?
- What kind of growth do our students need to make over time in order to leave the K–8 system ready to succeed in high school? How can we ensure that this is the kind of growth we are fostering?
- If students are growing at above-average rates, how can I share my successes and approaches with other teachers or with similar schools?
- If students are behind, and only growing at average rates, what can we do to change this to get them to above-average growth?
- And for administrators and policy makers especially: Is it possible that accountability measures would be more meaningful and realistic if we based expectations on outcomes achieved over a multiple-year and not simply an annual period?
Tell me about how through-year assessment will help educators at all levels answer the difficult question you posed: “Are [students] growing enough? Over time, will they acquire the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for what’s next?” In states that don’t adopt through-year assessment, what can they do?
The elegance of the through-year assessment we are developing is that for grades 3–8, it takes the best of both worlds—proficiency and growth—and puts them together, while also reducing overall testing by eliminating the need to administer the annual summative test.
But we know through-year assessment won’t be for every state, and in those cases, as well as for grades K–2 and high school, MAP® Growth™ will continue to be the right solution for many districts. District leaders and educators can look at MAP Growth results in the context of their students’ performance on the summative test and ensure that goals—especially for those students who are behind—are not based on average growth but, rather, on the growth rates students need to achieve in order to get where they should be for key transition points within the K–12 system.