Curriculum, News

The Importance of Rigorous Grade-Level Instruction for Student Success

Over the past few decades, our country has been contending with enduring educational challenges, with reading and math growth staying largely stagnant since the early 2000s. You may be wondering why when teachers are working hard and students are still showing up and putting in the work. 

TNTP’s 2018 study, “The Opportunity Myth,” shows that students are generally doing what their teachers ask of them, staying largely on task in class and, according to independent observations, demonstrating focus on their work. TNTP also analyzed over 20,000 independent student work samples and found another striking fact: students are successfully meeting the demands of their assignments, scoring a solid B or better 71% of the time. 

TNTP analyzed those assignments again, this time looking at grade-level standards. 

TNTP observers found that the assignments only met the rigor of state-adopted grade-level standards 17% of the time. 38% of the classrooms involved in this multi-year study never received a single grade-appropriate assignment in the entire time that researchers were in those rooms.

What does this mean? 

As a country, we promise our kids that if they consistently show up, diligently complete their work, and earn those coveted good grades, success is almost guaranteed. Yet, the disheartening fact looms large — every year, according to the Bengier Foundation, 33% of students drop out of college.

How can we work together to give students the best opportunities in class, on high-stakes tests, and beyond?

There are many research-based instructional best practices that educators can use to help students get closer to achieving mastery on grade-level tests, even if they are significantly behind grade level or have identified disabilities. Here are a few of those research-based best practices:

  1. Allow students to access grade-level material every day. Oftentimes, educators want to protect students from struggles, especially if they know students are far behind on the material. However, without exposure to challenging texts and tasks that may be above that student’s individual level, the chances are high that students may never see grade-appropriate material and lose opportunities for growth. Across both TNTP’s study in “The Opportunity Myth” and others, students show more progress when allowed to grapple with grade-level material, even if they are significantly behind their peers. 
  1. Provide appropriate supports and scaffolds to help students access grade-level material without lowering the rigor of the work. Before creating and presenting scaffolds, plan with the end in mind. What are we building to? What will a proficient answer look like? And, what are the skills and knowledge a student needs to achieve proficiency? Then, determine what scaffolds may be necessary. In their text “How Scaffolding Works,” Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and John Taylor Almarode describe four types of scaffolds:
  1. Front-end scaffolds: These are used when teachers explain a concept or meaning before the students struggle with it. This, they caution, is easy to over-scaffold — we end up doing the heavy lifting for students very easily. 
  2. Distributed scaffolds: These include just-in-case and just-in-time scaffolds. Just-in-case scaffolds are supports we might provide students at the outset and are enacted at the front end, especially for students with Individualized Education Plans that require additional supports. Just-in-time scaffolds are supports we have anticipated some students may need, but we don’t offer them until we notice through classroom conversation, peer work, writing, and so on that students could benefit from them. Over-scaffolding can happen here if we jump in too fast with supports without encouraging productive struggle. 
  3. Peer scaffolding: This is the strategic use of partnerships or groupings to support struggling learners. According to Frey, Fisher, and Almarode, it is hard to over-scaffold peer supports, but it does require the teacher to ensure that students know the difference between collaboration, helping, and just plain doing the work for their peers.
  4. Back-end scaffolds: These happen after the learning task has been completed. After an educator sits down with the data (it could be as quick as looking at one or two important questions students completed from that day), they make a plan to support the students who still need additional time and practice with the skill or standard. 
  5. Collaborate across content areas for skill building. ELA and math are not the only subjects that teach literacy and numeracy, so take advantage of the instructional minutes in science, social studies, and even the fine arts! Collaborating across content areas in formal professional learning collaboratives or ad hoc planning can help a student immensely. If a student is learning to write an essay in one style for ELA and a completely different style for history, for example, they are not practicing artful writing, they are practicing memorizing what one educator says will get them a good grade. Imagine if English and history sat down together and created a few bullet points for high-quality writing that were the same across both content areas and then reviewed student writing. How might that radically change the educational experience for students? 

Additionally, educators can use Progress Learning to teach on-grade-level skills and standards with rigorous and engaging content, and then use the data dashboards to target specific areas for improvement

If the first time students are asked to do sustained grade-level work alone is on a test, the chances are they won’t do well. But if students are exposed with gradual release to rigorous grade-level content throughout the year, with targeted interventions, their chances of success will only continue to rise. 

If you want to meet your students where they are, now is a great time to request a demo or reach out for more info on how we can work together in the new year!

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