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Skip, Repeat, or Intervene: Considerations for Principals & Teachers

Dr. David Franklin
Written By Dr. David Franklin
On Sep 27, 2021
6 minute read
We are entering into the third school year that has been impacted by COVID... Think about this: kids entering into second grade have never experienced a “normal” school year.

In March of 2020, this year’s second graders were in Kindergarten when COVID forced them, and every student across the country, from their classrooms into online learning. Many schools around the country stayed remote for most of the 2020-21 school year; some opened up in-person learning with restrictions and modified days. When students walk through the classroom doors for the start of the 2021-22 school year, many of them will still be navigating COVID restrictions, with both their teachers' and their classmates' smiling faces covered by masks. Many of these young students are forgetting what life was like before COVID transformed our learning environments. The regular school experience for our youngest students has either been lost to time or has never been experienced at all.


The pandemic has upended all of our lives, but our children’s normal school rhythms never got a chance; they have instead faced a variety of larger life challenges including one or both parents losing their jobs, navigating unstable home or living environments, feeling isolated from their friends and social outlets, or even losing a family member to COVID. According to Edsource, more than 30% of students surveyed in March by the ACLU of Southern California said they’d lost someone close to them over the past year. Some had lost multiple family members.


The term “learning loss” is not new - it has historically been used to articulate what happens to a child over the summer when they are not in school (also referred to as the “summer slide”). Since the spring of 2020, the phrase has been used to describe students’ academic regression or lack of progress during remote learning. Sadly, this term has been twisted and at times used critically in association with teacher efforts. But the data says something different: 77.1% of educators said they are spending more time on their job than in previous years according to the Horace Mann Educators Corporation national survey of 1,240 U.S. educators between Oct. and Nov. 2020. During this uncertain and disruptive season in education, teachers have remained one of the constants in a child’s life.


Despite our teachers’ valiant efforts, student learning loss is real. For months at a time, some students had little to zero access to their online learning due to lack of connectivity, devices, or needing to care for a sibling at home. Many children did not transition well to online learning and became disengaged over the long days, weeks, and months of sitting in front of a computer screen. In an article by the New York Times’ Jered Borup, an Associate Professor in learning technologies at George Mason University, his research found it is generally harder for instructors to keep their students engaged in virtual lessons.


As students begin this school year, educators are asking themselves many questions, but one of the most critical questions is: How do we determine what students already know going into this school year, and what do we do if they are way behind where they should be?


It begs the bigger question of do we skip grade-level content in order to teach concepts never learned in the previous grade, do we hold students back a grade by retaining them in order to reteach these concepts, or do we provide strategic interventions based on data?


There is no playbook for this game, no model to imitate. However, what we do over the next few months will have repercussions for our students for years to come.


Option #1 - Skip: Skipping current grade-level content is essentially the same as kicking the can down the road. There is no sense in plugging holes in a sinking ship if new holes are popping up as fast as you can plug them.


Option #2 - Repeat: The research on retention has been clear for decades: it doesn’t work. According to research from Anderson, Jimerson, and Whipple, some of the devastating effects of retention are:

        • Most children do not “catch up” when held back.
        • Although some retained students do better at first, these children often fall behind again in later grades.
        • Retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout; holding a child back twice makes dropping out of school 90% certain.
        • Students who are held back tend to get into trouble, dislike school, and feel bad about themselves more often than children who go on to the next grade.
        • The weakened self-esteem that usually accompanies retention plays a role in how well the child may cope in the future.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, a synthesis of the growing body of empirical work on retention concluded that retaining students in a grade had more negative effects on student achievement, personal adjustment, self-concept, and attitudes toward school than promoting students on to the next grade level.


Option #3 - Intervene: Providing targeted intervention is looking better and better. While it is the most involved option, providing intensive personalized intervention based on current student ability and performance data is the best method to combat learning loss while not exposing students to any additional lost learning time.


So where do you start? Impactful intervention requires a baseline, and that baseline requires insightful assessments.


Assessment has become a four-letter word for educators in recent years due to high-stakes state testing. Teachers and students have routinely expressed testing fatigue and frustration at ‘testing without instructional application’. Unfortunately, true formative assessments have paid an unintended price.


But to ensure students are getting back on track, it is more important now than ever before that schools administer assessments at the beginning of the school year and throughout the year to ensure that students are making progress.

      • Begin with ability: The CogAT assessment and its unique interactive student Ability Profile™ gives educators specific insights into a student’s learning potential and gauges the ‘learning opportunity cost’ of COVID when comparing their ability to their performance.
      • Baseline & benchmark performance: Whether it’s pairing a summative diagnostic test with a benchmark solution (like Iowa Assessments and IowaFlex), educators must find tools that measure student performance to determine specific areas of mastery and identify gaps in foundational concepts that require intervention.
      • Monitor progress: Schools must ensure that they are using a proven progress monitoring assessment tool for district-wide implementation of a research-based Response to Intervention (RTI) model.


The lack of a proper assessment tool is akin to playing darts in the dark. You don’t know what you are throwing at, what you are hitting, and if you are scoring any points.


Ask yourself this, when you visit the doctor’s office, do you want your doctor to prescribe medicine to you without conducting some tests? Furthermore, our yearly physical helps doctors catch potential issues before they get out of hand and require a more comprehensive and extensive approach to treatment. The same idea can be applied to your car mechanic. No one likes to hear that fixing your car is going to cost $800 dollars, especially if they haven’t even looked under the hood. But, we also all know that preventative maintenance and monitoring will help keep our car running better and longer.


We need to become right with assessment once again. Not high stake testing, but ongoing pulse checks that provide insights on student learning that can help our teachers address learning challenges before they get too big. Kids are not cars. We can’t turn them in for a newer model every few years. We need to support the ones we have now in order to keep them on the road for a long time to come.


So how to get started with interventions? Check out my next blog coming soon.

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