June 10, 2024

By Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer

Personalized learning is a hot topic in K‒12 education. Of course, personalization can be viewed as the continuation of a much older dialogue around differentiation, and it’s also closely related to the concept of responsive teaching. As always, we can get lost in the nuances of definitions, but let me pose a question: How high of a bar should you set for an educational approach to meet before it can be considered “personalized”?

I ask this because, at Renaissance, we hold ourselves to a significantly higher standard than that of at least one of our major competitors. We believe that for instruction to be personalized to a given student or even a group of students, more needs to be considered than merely an assessment score.

In the case of the competitor I’m referencing, each student’s most recent assessment score is the sole determinant of which instructional resource is assigned to “personalize” learning. Said another way, every student who receives the same score is given the very same assignment.

While our competitor heralds this as “personalized learning,” I believe this approach falls seriously short. How so?

Personalized learning: Assessment, instruction, and teacher expertise

Let’s consider how our competitor’s approach might play out in a given district. It’s quite possible for a high performing third grader, a typically performing fifth grader, and a struggling seventh grader to all take a reading or math assessment and receive the same scaled score. In the case of our competitor’s program, each student would then be auto-assigned exactly the same instructional resource.

While these three students may be performing at a similar level on this particular assessment, they represent three very different learners:

  • For the high performing third grader, the teacher may wish to go deeper with some skills before moving ahead. The focus here is on deeper learning, rigor, and application.
  • For the typically performing fifth grader, the teacher will want to match instruction to how the student learns best. Some students, for instance, are most engaged during whole class activities, while others may benefit most from small group interactions.
  • For the struggling seventh grader, the teacher will almost certainly have additional information to inform the best next steps. For example, perhaps this is an Emerging Bilingual learner who will benefit from scaffolding and supports around English language development—supports that would not be appropriate for native English speakers.

In stark contrast to the “auto-assign” process based on a single data point, Renaissance places the teacher at the center of instruction, knowing that teachers have a more complete picture of the students in their classrooms than a single assessment score can provide.

For this reason, district leaders need to understand that the integrated assessment-to-instruction approach used by some of our competitors is, in operation, merely the auto-assignment of a limited set of resources based solely on an assessment score. It’s a process that circumvents the teacher and does not bring to bear all the critical things that teachers know about students.

In short, Renaissance seeks to support teachers, not supplant them. We use assessment results not to auto-assign but rather to recommend options from a large collection of instructional resources—with teachers always having the final decision on how to best personalize learning for their students.

We believe such an approach is critical because, despite recent advances in AI, no algorithm can match all that teachers know about their students through everyday interactions and observations. In fact, I like to say that the teacher is the greatest intelligence in the classroom. Everything else is artificial.

Tools to personalize learning

Explore Renaissance solutions for personalized instruction in literacy and math.

Selecting instructional resources to personalize learning

Of course, I also acknowledge the many demands on teachers’ time. When I was in the classroom, I was always struck by how little instructional planning I accomplished during my daily planning period. My time was instead spent making photocopies, answering emails, and meeting with colleagues. Like most teachers, the majority of my planning occurred before and after school, at night, and on the weekends.

In stolen moments, however, I was constantly searching for new and better resources to support my lessons. And while it’s possible to find an array of instructional resources online, it’s time-consuming for teachers to:

  1. Conduct manual searches across multiple websites, many of which require separate logins and passwords.
  2. Review and assess each resource for quality and alignment with state standards.
  3. Quickly locate each resource when it’s needed in the classroom.

This is why, at Renaissance, we’ve built a connection between Star Assessments and our popular Nearpod instructional platform—a powerful feature that provides teachers with instant access to a library of quality, standards-aligned resources for classroom use. These resources are available to all Star Assessments users, and they offer multiple ways for teachers to personalize instruction in the moment to best meet their students’ needs.

Exploring the Star-to-Nearpod connection

So, what makes the Star-to-Nearpod connection unique, and how does it support effective personalization? Let’s briefly explore three key benefits, which I discuss in more detail in my new Assessment Masterclass video.

#1: A unified experience for teachers

You can access Nearpod lessons with a single click from within the Star Record Book. This eliminates the need to log in to multiple websites searching for instructional resources.

As shown in the image below, you have the option of viewing recommended resources for an instructional group or an individual student. You can also browse resources for individual skills by grade level and domain, or search for resources by standard or keyword (e.g., alliteration):

Accessing Nearpod instructional resources within Star Assessments

#2: Alignment with student assessment data

Students’ performance on a Star test helps to identify the skills they’re ready to learn—and the recommended Nearpod resources to support instruction. To reiterate, these resources are not auto-assigned, as they would be in our competitor’s model. Instead, you decide which resources are the best fit, based on your knowledge of students’ progress, current needs, preferred learning styles, and more:

Recommended Nearpod instructional resources

#3: Access to prerequisite skills

If you choose skills that are at a difficulty level higher than where any students in your classroom are performing, Star will note that, identify those students, and suggest prerequisite skills and activities. This meets a long-standing request from educators, who need to teach (or reteach) prerequisite skills in the moment to support students who struggle.

What does this look like in practice?

As you scroll through skills in the Record Book, a link to prerequisites is provided below each skill. As an example, consider this grade 1 skill in the Missouri ELA standards for isolating and pronouncing the sounds in single-syllable words:

Quick access to prerequisite skills

Clicking the “Prerequisite Skills” link brings up a list of skills and, often, aligned Nearpod lessons—in this case, for a kindergarten skill for pronouncing initial and final phonemes in CVC words:

Viewing prerequisite skills and aligned instructional resources

From assessment data to personalized instruction

The Star-to-Nearpod connection is just one example of the expanded functionality made available through Renaissance’s ecosystem of connected solutions. Let’s consider what these options might mean for personalizing learning by referencing the three students mentioned earlier, whom we will now name:

  • Shaniece is the high performing third grader who achieved a scaled score of 1012 on the Star Math assessment. For a grade 3 student, this score converts to a percentile rank (PR) of 97.
  • Lily is the typically performing fifth grader who also achieved a scaled score of 1012 on Star Math. This score converts to a PR of 50 for a grade 5 student.
  • Luis is the Emerging Bilingual seventh grader who also achieved a scaled score of 1012 on Star Math. This score converts to a PR of 17 for a grade 7 student.

As a high performing student, Shaniece is demonstrating excellent aptitude with grade-level content. For such a student, many math pedagogy experts advise “going deeper before moving ahead,” so her teacher will likely choose more open-ended or inquiry-based lessons from either Nearpod or Freckle for Math. If she demonstrates a deep understanding of grade-level objectives, then her teacher can safely move her on to more advanced content.

Lily is successfully performing on grade level through the lens of the interim assessment. We know that she is generally doing well, but more granular information would also be quite useful. In her case, data from a practice program like Freckle could be very insightful, because Freckle tracks student progress at the skill-by-skill level to provide teachers with feedback on where each student needs prerequisite review, additional practice on level, or more challenging opportunities to go deeper.

Luis, with a performance equal to a PR of 17, is clearly struggling to respond to grade-level content presented in Star Math in English. Because his home language is Spanish, his teacher will be very interested in how he performs in Star Math in Spanish:

  • If the Spanish assessment also reports low-level performance, then a strategic review of essential math skills related to the current grade-level unit is in order to accelerate learning for Luis.
  • If Luis’ level of performance is much higher on Star Math in Spanish, this indicates that he very likely has a solid grasp of more advanced math concepts when they are presented in Spanish but not in English. This means that lessons targeted at English language development around the grade-level content could be more appropriate.

Renaissance: Providing resources to truly personalize learning

Each of these very different responses in personalizing instruction can be facilitated through the Star-to-Nearpod connection and other, connected components within the Renaissance ecosystem. In each case, the learner’s needs are addressed. Remember, however, that with many competitive products, each of these students would have been auto-assigned the very same instructional resource.

“Personalization” to some district leaders may mean that an assignment is made in consideration of the score achieved without a teacher at the center of the process, just a simple algorithm. We, however, believe that true personalization requires:

  1. More information, much of which must come from the teacher.
  2. Many more instructional options—in fact, an ecosystem of quality resources.

Through our approach of keeping the teacher at the center of the classroom and ensuring that tasks best performed by teachers are not assumed by technology, we’re staying true to the decades-old principles that have guided our product development strategy.

We pledged, long ago, to develop tools that represent the best use of technology in the classroom, and we hold true to that today. As I said before, the teacher is the primary intelligence in the classroom. Everything else is artificial.

To learn more about the Star-to-Nearpod connection or other solutions for today’s classrooms, please reach out. Also, I invite you to explore my earlier Masterclass sessions on screening, learning progressions, Spanish assessments, and other key topics in K‒12 education.

Learn More

See how the Star-to-Nearpod connection keeps teachers at the center of the classroom—while accelerating learning for all students.

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