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Using Focus Skills to close COVID-19 learning gaps

By Dr. Gene Kerns, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer, and Dr. Katie McClarty, Vice President of Research and Design

As we begin the 2020–2021 school year, there’s no shortage of advice about how to meet students’ needs, given the disruption caused by COVID-19 last spring. Although the language may vary, multiple authors and agencies begin with a key recommendation: Prioritize the most critical skills and knowledge in each subject area and focus your attention there.

For many educators, this raises some immediate questions. How can we be sure that we’re focusing curriculum and instruction on the skills that are truly the most critical? Where can we find guidance on what must be covered and what can be set aside? Does the mode of instruction—whether face-to-face, remote, or a combination of the two—affect what we prioritize?

Recently, we had the opportunity to explore these and other questions in a live webinar. Succinctly stated, we proposed that Focus SkillsTM—a unique type of content identified by Renaissance and available for free on our website—are “the most critical” skills at each grade level. We then provided a walkthrough of our Focus Skills resources and explained how educators might use Focus Skills in the new school year.

If you missed the live webinar, you can watch the recording here. We had a very engaged audience of educators who asked us a lot of great questions. In this blog, we’d like to review the most common—and answer a few that we didn’t have time for during the live event.

Q: How does Renaissance identify Focus Skills? What’s the difference between Focus Skills and non-Focus Skills?

Renaissance defines Focus Skills as the building blocks of learning in reading and mathematics. Obviously, all K–12 reading and math skills are important, and students benefit from learning any new skill in these domains. Yet certain skills are more critical than others, because they’re important prerequisites for future learning and are therefore essential to students’ progression.

To give but one example: Multiply or divide integers to solve a problem is a grade 7 Focus Skill. Clearly, this is a critical prerequisite for a deep understanding of numbers and how they’re used to solve real-world problems. It’s also crucial for success in algebra, geometry, and beyond. Estimate the solution to a problem involving the multiplication or division of integers is also a grade 7 skill and is also important. However, the ability to estimate in this way is not a critical prerequisite for future learning in mathematics, so it’s not designated as a Focus Skill.

In the webinar, we offered a visual representation of this concept. Imagine that we have a group of skills, labeled A–N to indicate the order in which they’re typically learned:

Image 1

In this view, all of the skills appear to be of equal importance, because we have no way of knowing the relationship between them. But if we add arrows to show which skills are prerequisites of other skills, the picture changes significantly:

Image 2

Skills A, B, and D are all essential prerequisites for future learning and are all designated as Focus Skills. Skills C, E, and F—while important and good to know—are non-Focus Skills, because they do not play the same crucial role in students’ development.

Q: In planning instruction this fall, should I concentrate on my state standards or on Focus Skills?

You don’t need to choose between the two, because Focus Skills are based upon—and are fully aligned with—your state’s learning standards. When you view Focus Skills on our website, you’re asked to choose your domain (either Literacy or Math) along with your state. As you can see in the example below for Ohio, Focus Skills are clearly labeled with the standard they align to:

Image 3

Several webinar attendees asked about differences between states: If Focus Skills are the building blocks of learning, shouldn’t they be the same everywhere? Generally speaking, the skills themselves don’t vary radically. What is variable is the grade level in which they’re taught, based on the way each state organizes its standards. For example, there’s variation in how math standards are sequenced at the high school level—particularly in which standards are included in Algebra I vs. Algebra II.

If you take another look at the image above, you’ll notice a “Position” column to the far right. This indicates each Focus Skill’s location in the overall progression. In this example, these are skills 483, 496, and 499 in the sequence of reading skills that students encounter in Ohio over the course of their K–12 education.

Q: Which grade level has the highest number of Focus Skills?

Although we see variation in the grade level at which particular skills are taught, we see a clear pattern in the distribution of Focus Skills across grades. In the majority of states, grade 1 has the most Focus Skills for reading. This makes sense, given that students are learning fundamental skills in phonics and decoding that will help them to read independently. In math, Algebra I has the highest number of Focus Skills in the majority of states, as students are introduced to the advanced concepts they’ll need for success in high school and college math courses.

This information is especially relevant now, as we think about last spring’s school closures. While this disruption has affected every student, an understanding of Focus Skills helps us to identify those who are most at risk of having missed essential learning—and who will likely benefit the most from review and reteaching this fall. In reading, it’s students who were in grade 1 last year. In math, it’s students who were enrolled in Algebra I.

There are, of course, other key considerations here. We know that students had different levels of access to learning opportunities this spring. Some first graders, for example, were highly engaged in distance learning and spent time reading with a parent or other adult—a practice that likely continued over the summer. Other first graders had a significantly different experience, with little to no access to literacy activities.

Knowing which grade levels and courses involve the most “heavy lifting” is important, and an understanding of Focus Skills helps with this. However, it’s impossible to truly address learning gaps and learning loss until fundamental issues of access and equity have been addressed.

(For more discussion of these points—and for strategies for promoting equity in a distance/hybrid learning environment—check out this new webinar, presented by two of our Renaissance colleagues.)

Q: My district has been using “Power Standards” for the last few years. Are these the same as Focus Skills?

The intention is certainly the same. Other authors and agencies have also undertaken the work of identifying the most important skills at each grade level. These have various names, such as Power Standards, Priority Standards, or—in the case of Bob Marzano’s work—Critical Concepts. While there will be some variation between Renaissance’s Focus Skills and other lists, they will have more commonalities than differences.

Q: Does Renaissance update the list of Focus Skills when state standards change?

Yes. Renaissance has created reading and math learning progressions for all 50 US states, along with the District of Columbia, the National Curriculum of England, and Alberta, Canada. A key step in developing a learning progression is identifying the skills that are inherent in the standards. We then analyze this list of skills to identify those that are critical prerequisites for future learning and are essential to progression. As mentioned earlier, these are the Focus Skills.

Each summer, we review and update our learning progressions to reflect any changes to the standards. As part of this process, we may need to update the Focus Skills to help ensure they continue to reflect the intention and organization of the standards.

Q: How much time should I spend teaching Focus Skills this school year?

The short answer is: A lot. Although we see some variation among states, 20–30 percent of the total K–12 math skills are designated as Focus Skills. In reading, it’s generally 30–40 percent. But this doesn’t mean you should spend 20 or 30 percent of your time on these skills. On the contrary, because they’re the most critical skills for students to learn, you should spend the majority of your instructional time on them.

In the book Practice Perfect (2012), Doug Lemov and his co-authors make a point that’s especially relevant to this discussion. They explain that when students are learning a crucial skill, it’s not enough that they simply “know how to do it.” With these skills, the goal is not “mere proficiency”—instead, it’s excellence. To put this another way: Because of Focus Skills’ critical role in advancing learning, it’s worth investing significant time in helping students to master them.

Q: What if students are doing well in a distance-learning environment, and there are no major skill gaps? Are Focus Skills relevant for these students?

Absolutely. Focus Skills existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and you can use these skills to guide instruction whether you’re teaching face-to-face, remotely, or in a blended/hybrid model. Because Focus Skills are organized by grade, you can use them in a variety of scenarios:

  • If students are performing below grade level, you might look back at essential skills from prior years. Reviewing and/or reteaching these prerequisites can help students to “catch up” and to build the foundation they need in order to learn grade-level content.
  • If students are performing on grade level, you can use Focus Skills to decide what to teach next—and where to spend the bulk of your instructional time in order to have the greatest impact on student growth.
  • If students are performing above grade level, you might look ahead at the Focus Skills for future years, so you can begin introducing more advanced concepts.

One important note about looking ahead, however. As we noted in the webinar, some students will “get” grade-level skills very quickly—but this is not necessarily an indication of mastery. If students are only practicing these skills at the surface level (say, DOK levels 1 and 2), it’s important to engage them in more complex tasks that require strategic and extended thinking (DOK levels 3 and 4). Once they’ve completed these tasks successfully—and have demonstrated excellence, as noted above—they’re ready to move on.

Q: Are there Focus Skills for Spanish?

This work is currently underway. Renaissance is the only assessment company to provide a learning progression in Spanish, to reflect the way in which literacy develops in Spanish across grades K–12. As with the development of our learning progressions in English, this required us to identify the discrete skills and to place them in a teachable order, as represented in this graphic:

Image 4

With this information, we can then identify Spanish Focus Skills, which are—once again—the essential prerequisites for future learning. We expect to have Spanish Focus Skills available on our website later this school year.

Q: In the webinar, you mention that Focus Skills are embedded in Star Assessments. Where specifically can I see Focus Skills in Star?

As soon as students complete a computer-adaptive Star test, you can view Star’s Instructional Planning Report at the student, group, and/or class level. The report identifies the skills a student is ready to learn, based on his or her current place in the learning progression. Focus Skills are flagged in the report so you can quickly see the most critical skills to move learning forward:

Image 5

If you use Star, you’ll also see Focus Skills in the Planner. Here, you can access aligned instructional resources for each skill, along with pre-made “skill checks” to assess students’ developing mastery. For helpful information about using these features, check out our new guide to using Star to reverse learning loss during the 2020–2021 school year.

Before we go, it’s worth noting that math Focus Skills are now available in our Freckle platform as well, on the Standards page and in the Targeted Practice. For those who aren’t familiar with Freckle Math, it supports differentiated instruction and practice, and it integrates with the Star Math assessment. The ability to easily connect Focus Skills to daily practice benefits both teachers and students—and helps to ensure that no matter where learning happens, students remain focused on the skills that matter the most.

Ready for more insights on Focus Skills? You can see the reading and math Focus Skills for your state by clicking here. If you missed the live webinar, click the button below to watch the recording.

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Delaware. He is the co-author of three books: inFormative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade; Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise; and Literacy Reframed: How a Focus on Decoding, Vocabulary, and Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension.

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