I ran across a blog post the other day that was hard to read. Hard because it reminded me of how overwhelmed I felt every time I got an assignment by a student in one of my college writing classes who didn’t have the skills they needed to succeed in my class. Could I help them get to the finish line in the eleven weeks I was given?
My days in the classroom were long before COVID. That blog post I mentioned, “On giving up,” by Indiana middle school math teacher Luther Siler, talks about something I never had to face: the consequences of interrupted learning during a pandemic. Mr. Siler is gut-wrenchingly candid about just how difficult it is to look at MAP® Growth™ data this year.
But where there is difficulty, there must also be optimism. When things feel impossible, we must find possibility. I sat down with several NWEA colleagues in search of both these things. Together, we explored ways Mr. Siler and countless others like him can tackle three of the most difficult questions many teachers are facing this year:
- How do I tell kids the bad news of their low MAP Growth scores?
- How do I teach on-grade material when no one is on grade level?
- What do I do with kids who seem to have given up?
Here is some of what they had to say, edited for length and clarity. As with all good questions, there are many worthy answers.
Q. How do I tell kids the bad news of their low MAP Growth scores?
A. Don’t focus too much on the percentiles alone. Seek a more complete picture, and look for growth.
“There are many kinds of conclusions or results,” explains Erin Beard, content design coordinator in the professional learning department at NWEA. “The focus needs to be on the information that can most fuel learners and learning. That doesn’t mean hiding information from our students. But it does mean focusing on the information that’s going to ignite learning.”
MAP Growth measures both achievement and growth.
Jen Allen, professional learning consultant, agrees. “We’ve seen some pretty significant achievement dips during COVID, and we need to remember that an assessment like MAP Growth is just one test, one dipstick, one measure. What else can we learn about where a student is in their learning?”
Getting a more complete picture of what a student knows will happen over time, as more opportunities for student work and formative assessment present themselves. Tammy Baumann, mathematics content connections director, shares the power formative assessment had in her classroom. “All 120 or so of my kids had mailboxes in my room, and first thing every day they would grab their mail, which consisted of formative assignments with my feedback. This work would never be graded, but if they showed growth, I would find a way to make sure they knew that. Something simple like a sticker or smiley face, even for high schoolers, was huge.”
Robin Whitacre, manager of professional learning design, agrees that it’s imperative that we focus on what students do know as they’re revealing themselves to their teachers. “Regardless of the level to which they know it,” she cautions. “Celebrate what they know. Use that as a starting point, and use that to build confidence.”
Responsive planning practices can help you pull everything together. Read “How responsive planning can strengthen your formative assessment practice” by Brooke Mabry, manager of professional learning design, to learn more.
A: Make goal setting a central part of the conversation.
Focusing on what students do know isn’t just a glass-half-full strategy. It’s an important way to shift the focus from achievement to growth. And to growth mindset, to be more precise. That can begin with something very simple: talking to students—early and often—about what they want to accomplish and how they can get there. Yup, we’re talking about goal setting.
“When you’ve cultivated the notion that there’s great value in gathering more data about what students know, you’re in a great place to sit down together and create goals for the month, the quarter, whatever time period works for you,” Tammy says. She thinks back to all those pieces of formative assessment mail her students used to get from her. “It was real feedback that had no real numbers on it, but it allowed them to set goals and monitor their progress.”
MAP Growth measures both achievement and growth, and looking to the latter can inform your goal-setting work as well. “Growth data can help students see the results of their efforts over time and keep them striving for more,” Robin explains. Our MAP Growth Goal Explorer tool can help you learn more about how to use MAP Growth scores during goal setting. For step-by-step instructions, see our “MAP Growth Goal Explorer user’s guide.”
Q. How do I teach on-grade material when no one is on grade level?
A. Have regular status check-ins.
The question isn’t whether to teach to grade level or not. As Jen explains, “If we don’t teach to grade level, we’re creating an equity issue for an entire generation and that’s not okay.”
One way is to have regular check-ins. Vicki McCoy, senior director of professional learning design, explains: “I used to teach my kids that when you are far away from something, it really helps to check the intervals between there. If you’re starting a road trip and you’re driving from, say, Indianapolis, Indiana, all the way to Los Angeles, California, you’re probably gonna feel like you’re not getting anywhere by the time you get to Wall Drug in South Dakota if you don’t stop and check the map now and then.”
Help students make the choice to recognize and celebrate their progress, no matter how small.
Lindsay Prendergast, professional learning consultant, adds that attitude is a great topic to mention at these pit stops. “When progress seems daunting, it’s important to remember that we have an awful lot of things in our control, like effort, attitude, and how we manage our time. Help students make the choice to recognize and celebrate their progress, no matter how small. As renowned grading and assessment expert Thomas Guskey said, ‘Results are a reflection of where we are in our learning journey, and where is always temporary.’ So the truth is that, wherever kids are, they won’t be there for long!”
A. Focus on the goals more. Dwell on the starting point less.
Another favorite metaphor of Vicki’s was a ladder. “I would encourage my students to think about the development of their skills as being on a ladder. Each of them would start on a different rung, and we would all know which rung the state says they should reach by the end of the year. But I would always reinforce that it didn’t matter to me where each student started; what mattered was how we were going to work our way up.”
This metaphor gets at an important concept in learning: the zone of proximal development, or ZPD, that sweet spot where students are challenged just enough to stay engaged but not so much that they get overwhelmed and bow out. “When used in combination with formative classroom practice, tools like MAP Growth can give you an idea of every student’s ZPD,” Robin explains. “That can help you identify their exact entry point into material and work to help them understand how challenged they can expect to feel by a certain task—and why it’s worthwhile to embrace the struggle.” Brooke talks more about this in her posts “The zone of proximal development (ZPD): The power of just right” and “7 ways to use ZPD and scaffolding to challenge and support students.”
A. Prioritize access to grade-level standards.
Rather than focusing on the thought “I have to teach grade-level standards,” it can be more important to think, “How can I provide access to grade-level standards?” What can sometimes happen, when too much emphasis is placed on teaching grade-level standards all the time, is that educators get caught in a cycle of reteaching, Tammy explains.
“But we can think about it differently,” she says. “If my ultimate goal is grade-level work, I can think about how to provide my students with access to grade-level work along an entire continuum. I can start at an approximate zone where I think that the majority of my kids are and then move them forward from that place. So that might mean that I’m not necessarily teaching grade-level standards in round one of an iteration, but I know I will come back and iterate on that again.”
“I think about pre-teaching versus reteaching,” Jen adds. “Pre-teaching is going to give your students access to the grade-level content in whole-group instruction. So things like teaching relevant vocabulary and content or background knowledge to the whole class. If you rely only on reteaching to kids one-on-one, they will likely be really confused during the whole-group instruction because they’ll be missing too much context. You’ll end up having to reteach them twice: those prerequisite scaffolding pieces you already had planned and what they weren’t able to understand during the whole-group lesson.”
A. Make learning personal.
“It is a lot easier to show kids the value of what they’re learning if you are able to connect that learning to either real-world problems or real-world goals and aspirations they have,” says Chase Nordengren, senior research scientist. So one surefire way to get kids engaged in their learning—even if they have a lot of learning to do before they reach the expectations for their grade—is to get to know them personally and to tie who they are and what they love into their learning as much as possible.
“If you say, ‘Today we are going to learn about finding common denominators,’ that strikes me as both a little bit dull and not necessarily lending itself to academic discourse,” Chase adds. “But if you start the framing with something more like, ‘Today we’re going to learn how to double a recipe,’ it will probably be easier to make the material seem more interesting and relevant, which can lead to great conversations.”
Q. What do I do with kids who seem to have given up?
A. Keep making learning personal.
“This is the most heartbreaking and exciting question,” Vicki says. “I think that if we can put content in the context of something kids care about, like Chase said, then they will see that the skill has value for their own unique goals and aspirations. Once we do that, we can match it with a pathway they can follow as far as they want, and we’ve created those empowered learners Erin often writes about. We have changed their reason for showing up to class every day.”
Embracing mistake making is the heart of growth mindset.
“We have to let go of the idea that some students don’t even want to try because they’re too far down to bother,” says Robin. “We have to give them a reason to want to learn the thing. A percentile, a ranking, a grade won’t do that. But really trying to access their funds of knowledge can.”
In math in particular, redefining what success looks like is critical. “What if success is no longer focusing on the right answer, but on the journey?” Tammy asks. “What if I’m teaching and I get more excited about a wrong answer than the right answer? What if I have students help me build on a wrong answer so we can understand how we’re thinking and how the math truly works?”
“We have as much to learn from mistakes as from the right answer. Maybe more,” Vicki agrees. “Embracing mistake making is the heart of growth mindset.”
Please don’t give up
The pandemic has been brutal for teachers, and it’s been brutal for kids, too. One way to relieve some of the tension is to simply acknowledge the immensely difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Yes, this is hard. No, this is not what any of us signed up for.
But in those moments of respite—those brief, brief moments of respite—we encourage you to take a few cleansing breaths and try one of the suggestions shared here. Even a small shift in how you think about test scores, goal setting, or funds of knowledge can make this difficult time a little easier to navigate confidently.