May 15, 2020

“It’s difficult to make predictions—especially about the future.”

This line—which has been attributed to Mark Twain, Yogi Berra, and Samuel L. Goldwyn—certainly holds true today, when there’s no shortage of predictions about what we can expect for Back-to-School 2020. After cutting through all the noise, two key ideas stand out: (1) That fall 2020 grade-level cohorts will enter school behind cohorts in previous years; and (2) That learning gaps will almost certainly have widened.

Once we accept these predictions, our minds immediately shift to the implications. How will we help students to catch up? Will we have to make up all of the lost ground during the 2020‒2021 school year? Should we begin the new year by focusing exclusively on reviewing content from the previous grade-level? If so, what current grade-level content will we cut to make time for this? Which grade levels and subject areas will be impacted the most? And how can we possibly prepare for all of this?

If you feel overwhelmed while thinking about these questions, you’re not alone. We know that emotions and stress impede cognitive functions, causing us to shut down. Now more than ever, it’s important to remember the old saying: “Just breathe!”

Finding stability in uncertain times

Reminding ourselves to breathe may seem strange, but people who are experiencing stressful situations often need to be reminded of just this. Overwhelmed by sudden events and the loss of control, they become cognitively overloaded and shut down, unable to do things that were previously automatic. And for most of us, recent events have been overwhelming (to say the least). In the short term, we struggled to create a “new normal” in which teaching and learning could continue. Now, with state summative tests cancelled and buildings closed for the remainder of the school year, we’re beginning to wonder what lies ahead. What will fall 2020 look like? How will it differ from the “normal” back-to-school (BTS) period we’re familiar with? How will we adapt to what we find?

If we tune out the endless drone about “the great unknown,” we can find a basic message that’s as fundamental as “Just breathe.” As educators, we already have tools and resources to deal with any eventuality—and to help us to meet our learners where they are.

Yes, it’s likely that many students will be behind in the fall, but we have ways to address this.

And yes, there will likely be a lot of variance in student performance this fall, but no teacher has ever taught a class where every learner is at precisely the same level, and we have ways to address this as well.

And now for some good news…

For more than a decade, schools across the country have been using the assessment tools and implementing the decision-making frameworks—namely, RTI and MTSS—that they need to deal with any eventuality, even those that await us post-COVID-19. BTS 2020 will clearly bring new challenges, but we do not need to search out new tools and processes to address them. On the contrary, we need to rely even more heavily on our interim assessment tools and RTI/MTSS-based decision-making frameworks—and implement them with an even higher degree of fidelity.

Both new and long-time users of Star Assessments will find themselves well supported for BTS 2020. Star Assessments are highly reliable and valid for both screening and progress monitoring. Plus, their detailed learning progressions, developed specifically for each state, provide extensive information to support instructional planning, whether students are performing at, above, or below grade level.

Immediately after screening students, educators are able to see how they’re performing against school, district, or state benchmarks. Star users with historical data will also be able to compare their students’ performance to prior years, revealing the extent of any “COVID-19 slide.”

One of our Renaissance colleagues recently used the term “instructional triage” to describe the heightened sense of urgency educators will feel once they’ve reviewed their fall screening data. How will students perform after so much time away from school? What specific support will they need?

The similarities between RTI/MTSS models and medical triage have been noted before. In fact, the screening aspect of RTI/MTSS models closely parallels medical triage, which involves assigning degrees of urgency in order to meet the most critical needs. Although we’ll have a greater sense of urgency for BTS 2020, and although we’re likely to uncover a wide range of student needs, the fundamental process remains the same.

Assessment + aligned resources = We’ve got you covered

To fully understand the power of Star Assessments, it’s important to recognize the value of the instructional resources that are included in the program. Thousands of quality open educational resources (OERs) are indexed to the skills in Star’s learning progressions for reading and mathematics. As a result, Star not only identifies the areas that are appropriate for instruction but also provides educators with an extensive library of resources (lesson plans, activity ideas, performance tasks, etc.) to address the specific student needs identified by the assessment.

We’ve added many new features to Star over the past several years, and we know that in order to make the best use of Star to meet your students’ needs, you need to fully understand all that Star has to offer. To provide you with this ongoing support, we’re launching this series of blogs that will provide step-by-step guidance for using Star throughout the 2020‒2021 school year.

Topics we’ll address in future blogs include:

  • How to compare BTS 2020 screening data to previous years in order to gauge the effect of the “COVID-19 Slide”
  • How to identify the skills that are most critical to your students’ academic success
  • How best to track students’ mastery of these skills
  • How to monitor progress and growth throughout the new school year

As noted above, the first step in dealing with a stressful situation is to go back to the basics. The first step for BTS 2020 will involve a similar turn: Screening students at key points during the school year, then using the screening data to prioritize delivery of services, and then regularly monitoring progress.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at the unique dynamics that BTS 2020 will present, and we’ll discuss options for administering Star Assessments remotely—in the event that “back to school” does not involve a return to the school building.

How are other school and district leaders planning for BTS 2020? Read the next blog in this series for the answers, along with tips to support your planning process.

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