August 21, 2020

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs on assessment’s “new normal”. To read the first blog in the series, click here.

Chances are, you’re familiar with the saying “Building the airplane while flying it.” It certainly describes our current experience in K–12 education. For years, “futurists” and education reformers have been attempting to predict—and even shape—the future of teaching and learning, but in the era of COVID-19, we’re all attempting to imagine a new world at the same time we’re living in it. We clearly don’t have the opportunity for design meetings, field tests, or pilot programs on how best to respond to the pandemic. Instead, we’re responding to events as they develop. More than ever before, we’re building the plane while we’re flying it.

When confronted with such moments, people tend to have one of two reactions. Some seek a new, novel, truly transformative solution—a sort of “Holy Grail” for K–12 education. Others take the opposite approach by “going back to this basics,” which is often the better choice. In Good to Great (2001), his famous book on organizational leadership, Jim Collins writes that “the real path to greatness…requires simplicity and diligence. It requires that each of us focus on what is vital—and eliminate all of the extraneous distractions.” In other words, we need to figure out what matters the most and focus our attention there, ruthlessly pushing back on everything else.

How does this insight connect to the 2020–2021 school year? Ultimately, our capacity to deal with any instructional reality is built on two things: our knowledge of the most essential skills for success, and our ability to track—that is, to formatively assess—students’ progress toward mastery of these skills. Thomas Guskey (2020) recently advanced these primary goals, providing the following advice for the year ahead:

  • First, “identify the prerequisite knowledge and skills students need to be successful in the initial instructional units of the coming school year. In other words, rather than considering all the things students may have missed, teachers focus only on what is essential for students’ success in those earliest units.”
  • Second, provide support for “teacher teams [to] develop short diagnostic assessments to measure that prerequisite knowledge and [these] skills.”

Renaissance can easily help you to meet the first of these goals. If you’re using Star Assessments, we can help you accomplish the second goal as well.

Focus Skills: The building blocks of student learning

In 2003, Robert Marzano noted that “meta-analytic evidence now affirms that curriculum may be the single largest factor that affects school achievement” (quoted in Schmoker 2018). Marzano’s use of the word “curriculum” refers to decisions about what to teach, rather than a particular textbook or program. In his book Focus (2018), Mike Schmoker strongly advances that “what we teach” matters far more than we know and is often not well guided by the average set of educational standards. In fact, teachers are often given more standards to cover than is realistically possible, and absolutely essential skills are often co-mingled with non-essential skills, which are more like nice-to-have “extras.” We desperately need a way to prioritize our efforts on the standards and skills that are truly non-negotiable.

For schools and districts seeking answers about which skills are the most critical to students’ academic success, Renaissance recently launched our Focus Skills Resource Center. This free resource lists the most important reading and math skills for each grade level, based on your state’s standards. Focus Skills represent the essential building blocks of understanding. They’re the skills that must be acquired at key points because they’re the foundation for future learning. For this reason, Focus Skills are an especially useful resource now, as we think about the disruption caused by COVID-19 and the critical prerequisite skills students may have missed due to last spring’s school closures.

Formative assessment and the path to mastery

Once we know which skills matter the most, we next need to assess students’ developing mastery of these skills. But first, a point of clarification. Recently, some commentators have questioned the role of assessment during the 2020–2021 school year. For example, Hill and Loeb (2020) write that “formal assessments are unlikely to provide [necessary] information in an efficient manner, both because of the time lag in reporting results and because those results are often not granular.” Other recent articles have stated that assessing students runs counter to concerns about their physical and emotional well-being during the pandemic.

Let’s be clear: Students’ well-being is paramount. After all, unless students feel safe and well, they can’t truly engage in the work of learning. Moreover, we agree that lengthy assessments—especially those that are fixed-form and provide delayed results—take away valuable teaching time and are not the right choice this fall. However, efficient and adaptive interim and formative assessments are unquestionably needed in order to gauge student learning and identify instructional next steps.

To be optimally effective this school year, teachers will also need to know more about the educational resources embedded in Star Assessments. These include both instructional resources (lesson plans, online activities, short videos, etc.) and formative assessment resources (performance tasks, open-ended items, and pre-made “skill checks”). All of these resources are indexed to the skills in Star’s learning progressions for reading and mathematics—which include the critical Focus Skills that we discussed above.

In fact, when it comes to checking students’ performance on Focus Skills, there may be no more valuable resource than the Star Custom “skills checks,” which are 5- or 7-question probes that target one specific skill. The 5-question forms contain 5 multiple-choice questions, while the 7-question forms have 5 multiple-choice questions and 2 free-response questions. To meet local needs, Star Custom also allows you to create your own assessments, using either Renaissance-authored items or items you create yourself.

How to access Focus Skills and instructional resources in Star

Assessment and the “new normal”

Now that we’ve discussed both focus and mastery, we have to ask ourselves: What’s the take-away for the year ahead?

In one sense, the message is not new: Focus your instruction on what matters the most and formatively assess your students along that pathway. The unique dynamics of COVID-19 require us to “go back to the basics” more than ever before—and this may be a good thing.

We’ve known for years that educators have been given more standards to cover than is possible, so we’ve desperately needed to thoughtfully prioritize curriculum to focus on what’s essential. Also, this may well be the year during which we rely more heavily on formative and interim assessments than ever before. This is also a positive thing. Interim assessments help to efficiently guide resource allocation and focus at the highest levels, and the research base around the positive impact of high quality formative assessment is unquestionable. These approaches represent the most productive ones to curriculum and assessment in any school year—and particularly in the moment we find ourselves in now.

“Building the plane while flying it” is often perceived as a challenge, but there can also be an air of excitement and novelty. For a lighter take on this, check out this commercial from EDS, which parodies this famous phrase—and perhaps provides a short, much-needed break from our current concerns. While it’s natural to feel discomfort in the face of uncertainty, there are also ways to view the moment as “brisk” and “refreshing,” because you never know what you’ll encounter up here.

In the final blog in this series, we discuss how assessment’s “new normal” impacts specific student populations, including early learners and emergent bilinguals. We also explore how equity issues may go unnoticed when a district’s data systems are not integrated—and how the picture becomes even more complicated when students are receiving services through multiple modes of delivery (face-to-face, remote, and hybrid).


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. New York: Harper.

Guskey, T. (2020). When school is back in session, where will we begin? Retrieved from:

Hill, H., and Loeb, S. (2020). How to contend with pandemic learning loss. Retrieved from:

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Learn more

Are you up-to-speed on everything that Star Assessments have to offer? Learn more about Star curriculum-based measures, Star Assessments in Spanish, and other features that will help you to accelerate student learning this year.

Share this post