Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and parents alike have worried about students falling behind. Even missing a week of school at the start of lockdowns in 2020 raised concerns about skipping essential parts of the curriculum. Now that most students are returning to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, teachers need to see what they’ve retained. Some have been remote for the past year, while others have learned in person or in a hybrid model. In most school years, no two students learn the same amount. However, the differences from student to student may be much greater this year.
Here’s how you can conduct a pre-assessment of your students to gauge what they learned and retained from the past year.
Why is it So Hard to Estimate Student Learning Loss?
One of the biggest challenges facing educators — from individual teachers to state-level education administrators — is understanding how much information students missed or failed to retain through remote instruction. What students actually know and remember will vary based on their teachers and on their own personal resources.
“Projections from education analysts suggest school building closures could cause academic slide and lasting learning losses that will disproportionately impact students of color and low-income students who may not have equitable access to basic necessities, technology, quality remote instruction, and support to learn from home,” writes Laura Zingg at Teach for America.
Since the start of the pandemic, administrators have relied on professional estimates to understand how far behind their students are. However, the researchers behind the estimates highlight that they are educated hypotheses only, based on data available at the time.
“I think people really latched onto [our learning loss data] because it gave some certainty in a very uncertain world of what this could look like,” says Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist at NWEA. The projections “took on a kind of life of their own, beyond what I would have ever imagined, and are sometimes spoken about with far more confidence that we have in them as researchers.”
The problem is that by relying on this data, school administrators might focus on quantitative assessments, rather than qualitative reviews of what students are actually forgetting. Yes, the numbers are alarming, but they are also confusing.
“There has been limited discussion on specifically what is being lost,” writes higher education consultant Tommy Thompson. “In some states, there are no statewide curricula. Many school districts do not have common assessments that measure curricular attainment. This means learning loss is different for each school district and varies even within school districts depending on how each teacher measures curricular attainment.”
What are the Benefits of Pre-Assessments?
To combat the confusion of learning loss, teachers can conduct pre-assessments at the start of the year. These development reviews can gauge where students are on an individual level and help teachers adjust their lesson plans to fill in any missing material.
“In my district, we assessed at the beginning, middle and end of the year,” writes education blogger Elissa Jones. “This gave me the opportunity to compare the same assessment over the entire year.”
By assessing throughout the year, you can track student growth. This practice also doesn’t have to be limited to the immediate post-COVID era. You can use these developmental assessments to learn what your students retained from the past year or even the past semester.
“The students who are performing on the outer edges of the normal curve—the struggling and the gifted—particularly benefit from formative assessment,” according to the team at K-12 education technology company PowerSchool. “These students have learning needs that are often unique and specific, and the teacher needs timely data in order to address them.”
Pre-assessments should not be viewed as negative or in any way punitive. You don’t have to use them to single out students who are behind. You can highlight advanced students who are more likely to grow bored and restless in class if they aren’t challenged or exposed to new material.
“Designing a one-size-fits-all lesson assumes that every student is starting from the same point,” says Dr. Catlin Tucker, author of “Balance With Blended Learning.” “The reality is that students enter our classrooms with varied skillsets and prior knowledge.”
Pre-assessments can help you learn where your students are academically, so they can all grow throughout the year no matter where they are starting from.
Build Up Student Confidence Before You Test
While you might understand the benefits of starting the year with a pre-assessment, students might not be thrilled about taking a test during their first week. In fact, nervous test-takers might shut down immediately.
“[Pre-assessments] can be very unsettling and even upsetting to students, because they are being tested before they have been taught anything,” says retired public school music educator Robert Adams. “It is one thing for a student to struggle with a test that is on something they know they have learned, and quite another to be tested on something they know for certain they have not been taught.”
Because of this, teachers should explain why students are being assessed and that this process is merely to gauge what they know or don’t know.
“Early in the process, students must know that pre-assessments will not be used for judgment, but rather to help their teachers help them,” writes education consultant Cassandra Erkens. “When this stated purpose is offered in tandem with a clear set of high expectations and an early promise of continued and targeted support, students can adopt an early growth mindset. They are positioned for success, rather than deflated by all the gaps revealed in their pre-assessment results.”
It’s important then to take time to explain why you are conducting this assessment and to encourage your students. At this point, you are their cheerleader and main supporter. You want them to show off their skills and impress you — and even impress themselves. They might not remember everything from the previous year, but they likely retained more information than they realized.
Tips and Resources for Effective Pre-Assessment
There are multiple ways to assess how much your students know. You can start with a comprehensive exam at the start of the year, or you can approach each section with a pre-test to gauge how much time you need to spend on the material. Follow these tips to conduct effective pre-assessments that benefit both you and your students.
Assess Students in Multiple Ways
Instead of using a multiple-choice format only, look for several ways to assess student skills and knowledge at the start of the year. You may even want to dedicate the first week just to assessment, with each class period tapping into a different evaluation model.
Middle school teacher Kasey Short says one option is to create a “writing sprint assignment,” where students write continuously for seven minutes. Short provides topics to choose from but also allows students to choose their topics. This activity creates a baseline for the grade level of writing that students have and their natural grammar. Short can see their writing raw and unedited.
You might want to consider how you evaluate your students as well. Some students do better with online assessments, while others might get bogged down in the technology. The same concept applies to writing assignments, as some students have better handwriting than others.
“Ask a variety of people with diverse perspectives to review assessment tools,” says Linda Suskie, a consultant on assessment in higher education and author of “Assessing Student Learning.” “This helps ensure that the tools are clear, that they appear to assess what you want them to, and that they don’t favor students of a particular background.”
Have Students Assess Themselves
Your students aren’t hiding information from you. They will likely tell you what they enjoy learning and what they hate doing. All you have to do is ask.
Laura Thomas, director of the Experienced Educations Program at Antioch University New England, recommends having students identify their weaknesses or topics they’d like to learn more about from your own rubric. After taking an assessment, ask students to list any questions they struggled with (even if they figured it out) to get more insights.
Check the Pre-Assessment Data Before Each Section
If you start the year with a formative assessment, use the results to guide your lesson plans throughout the year.
“As I work through the unit, I work back to these preassessment column sheets that I created and check them,” says teacher Tammy DeShaw. “I also check in with students and even occasionally adjust things. I adjust because sometimes it turns out that once you start teaching, a student’s memory is jogged and all is good again – they just needed a refresher.”
While you might glean some immediate insights from the tests, you will better understand why your students struggle in some subjects as you get to know them personally during the school year.
Create Mini-Assessments Ahead of Each Chapter
Even if you conduct a comprehensive pre-assessment at the start of the year, consider using mini-assessments as introductions ahead of each section.
Mia MacMeekin, dean of curriculum and instruction at Stratford University, created an infographic with 27 ways teachers can assess background knowledge. This is a great resource you can use throughout the school year.
For example, you can have students list all the keywords they remember in relation to a topic. You can also create fill-in-the-blank sheets where students can complete a story by adding in relevant information that they would have learned previously. These activities can serve as a section icebreaker while guiding what you teach in that lesson.
It’s tempting to get caught up in the hype that students across the country have fallen inescapably behind. However, your focus in the coming year needs to be celebrating what they do know and identifying opportunities for growth. This will make you feel less pressured as a teacher and will place less stress on students.