Maintaining Student Learning in the Midst of a Pandemic
In a typical summer, low-income students historically lose several months of reading achievement, starting the new school year about two months behind where they ended the prior one (Cooper, Nye, Charleton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996). This “summer loss” is particularly true in the area of literacy.
The U.S. is currently experiencing an unprecedented number of school closures in response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Prior research suggests that the most vulnerable populations (students living in poverty, those experiencing homelessness, those whose parents have completed fewer years of schooling, and those without ready access to resources such as books and educational materials which they might normally have available to them at school) will likely experience the greatest loss of learning (Cooper et al., 1996) due to the pandemic.
A variety of studies have shown, however, that students who continue to read when school is not in session either maintain their end-of-year reading level or even make slight gains (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2018) over the summer.
This year, with many students out of their regular instructional environment for up to four months longer than they would typically experience with traditional summer vacation, it might be wise for teachers to reach out to parents and share the basics of Response to Intervention with them. By helping parents get more involved not only in supporting their children’s online classes but also in tracking their progress and stepping in to intervene if data suggest that their children are losing ground, we can minimize the potential learning loss that might otherwise dampen students’ achievement in the long run.
Response to Intervention/Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
With so many students receiving instruction outside their regular school settings, educators and parents alike might find themselves wondering about how best to maintain the positive benefits of the Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) practices that are an integral part of modern K-8 education.
The basic premise underlying RTI/MTSS is that universal screening assessments, administered several times over the academic year, enable the identification of students who are under-performing relative to grade-level expectations. In addition to highlighting the students most at risk and in need of instructional support, these benchmark assessments provide information about the underlying foundational skills with which identified students may be struggling (see Figure 1). This information is then used by teachers to group students for targeted instruction (Curtis, Sullivan, Alonzo, & Tindal, 2011).
In the area of literacy development, for example, some students might need instruction focused on building their knowledge of phonics or their oral reading fluency. Others might have mastered those foundational skills but struggle with vocabulary. Still others might benefit from instruction focused on building their ability to comprehend text. Even in the area of reading comprehension, different strategies might be taken when helping students master literal as compared to inferential and evaluative comprehension.
When students are attending class in actual school buildings, their teachers use the results of screening assessments to organize students into instructional groups where their specific skill deficits can be addressed. They monitor the progress students are making and the effectiveness of the intervention/instruction being received by assessing students with skill-specific measures (e.g,, letter sounds, word or passage reading fluency, vocabulary, or reading comprehension) every 2–3 weeks (Tindal & Alonzo, 2016).
Student progress over time is evaluated through the use of line graphs. Following established protocols for single-case design research, a minimum of three data points are used to establish a baseline prior to implementing an intervention, and student scores are plotted over time and compared against national norms for grade-level performance to determine whether the instruction provided is meeting the students’ needs sufficiently to enable them to catch up to grade-level peers by the end of the year. Educators compare the level, slope, and variability of scores prior to and after the intervention is implemented to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention for a particular student (Alonzo, Tindal, & Robinson, 2008).
In the hypothetical example presented in Figure 2, for example, we see that Coby, a pseudonym, scored at or below the 10th percentile rank on a Letter Sounds measure at the start of the 2017 school year. After the third data point, an intervention (labeled here as “Intensive Phonics”) was provided. Approximately three weeks after the intervention was first implemented, Coby’s scores begin to rise, moving from three correct letter sounds in one minute in the middle of October to six on November 10, eight letter sounds correct approximately two weeks later, and 22 correct letter sounds produced in one minute by the end of March.
Graphs such as the one depicted in Figure 2 can be just as motivational for parents and children as they are for teachers themselves.
Technology-Enhanced Learning Systems
The widescale adoption of RTI approaches has led to a proliferation of online systems to support the regular collection of assessment data and facilitate the tracking of instructional interventions as well as the evaluation of their effectiveness. Some of these online systems require students to access them from school-based ip addresses. Others are able to be accessed from any computer with an internet connection.
Such technology-supported data-based decision-making has revolutionized the approach to teaching in many schools across the United States in the past two decades (Bettesworth, Alonzo, & Duesbery, 2008; Tindal & Alonzo, 2016). General education classroom teachers work closely with Special Education teachers, literacy specialists, and instructional assistants to select and provide targeted instruction to groups of students. Groupings are re-evaluated regularly, with changes made to the groups as student need dictates (Tindal, Alonzo, Sáez, & Nese, 2017).
At least, that is how the approach had been going up until March of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting shift to online instruction disrupted many instructional groupings and plans (among so many other things).
With students receiving their instruction online and parents stepping in to help support their children’s learning at home, many schools are asking parents to oversee the administration of progress monitoring assessments for the first time.
Although it is certainly possible for students to be assessed from home, teachers should consider several cautions before requesting their students go online to take progress monitoring tests.
· Adult supervision — somebody needs to be designated to ensure that students are taking their own, and not anybody else’s tests. In schools, this is done by having the teacher monitor students when they are testing. If students are taking tests at home, a parent/guardian should supervise the testing environment to make sure that the student has selected his/her own name as opposed to a classmate’s name when taking an online test.
· Ratio of teaching/learning days to testing days. Progress monitoring assessments are intended to be used to evaluate the progress students make over the course of the year as they receive instruction. Should school closures disrupt students’ opportunity to learn, maintaining the same testing schedule may not make sense. Teachers might need to adjust the frequency of the assessments to fit students’ learning opportunities.
· Fluency tests (e.g., LS, WRF, PRF) need to be administered one-on-one by someone trained in how to administer and score such measures. It is possible for parents/guardians to administer these tests under the direction of the child’s teacher. In this scenario, the person administering the test would send the results to the teacher, who would then enter the data on their school’s RTI assessment platform.
· Under no circumstances should teachers share their log-in credentials with parents/guardians. Student assessment data falls under the same FERPA regulations as teachers’ grade books, and it’s important that access to student data is limited to those people who have a legitimate right to see those data. Sharing a teacher’s log in information would violate the data privacy agreements foundational to all RTI assessment platforms. Maintaining the privacy of student data is a professional responsibility of all educators.
How Parents Can Support Their Children’s Literacy Progress
In this high-tech world, we often overlook the potential impact of low-tech solutions. One of the best suggestions for helping children develop — and even accelerate — their literacy skills is to have them read more. The effectiveness of this simple-sounding approach cannot be over-stated.
Households with few reading materials can take comfort in the fact that reading the same book or story multiple times is actually a recommended approach to solidify vocabulary knowledge, increase reading fluency, and improve overall comprehension skills.
Students who are struggling with reading should be encouraged to read simpler materials. Have them read to a younger sibling, a grandparent, a stuffed animal, or even to an imaginary friend. Encourage them to read with expression, to act out scenes from the stories they are reading, and to tell you about what they’ve read.
Model your own enjoyment of reading (even if you are not particularly fond of it!). Set a daily goal for pages read and have your child track their progress on a graph. Celebrate when they meet their daily or weekly goals.
If you don’t have access to any of the online assessment systems that your children’s teachers might normally use, you can track oral reading fluency at home using a storybook. Simply have your child read out loud to you for one minute, while you keep track of any words read incorrectly or skipped. At the end of 60 seconds, count the total number of correct words read, and plot that number on a graph.
Aim for an increase in the number of correct words read per minute every week, and you might be delighted to find that your children have actually gained ground rather than lost it during their time out of school.
Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2018). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. Teachers College Press.
Alonzo, J., Tindal, G., & Robinson, Q. L. (2008). Using school-wide response to intervention to close the achievement gap in reading. ERS Spectrum. 26, 1–9.
Bettesworth, L. R., Alonzo, J., & Duesbery, L. (2008). Swimming in the depths: Educators’ ongoing effective use of data to guide decision making. In T.J. Kowalski & T. J. Lasley (Eds.). Handbook on data-based decision making in education. New York: Routledge.
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review.” Review of Educational Research, 66, 227–268.
Curtis, Y., Sullivan, L., Alonzo, J., & Tindal, G. (2011). Context and process for implementing RTI. In E. Shapiro, N. P. Zigmond, Wallace, T., & Marston, D. (Eds.). Models for implementing Response to Intervention. New York: Guilford.
Tindal, G., Alonzo, J., Sáez, L., & Nese, J. F. T. (2017). Assessment of students with learning disabilities: Using students’ performance and progress to inform instruction. In K. Ercikan & J. W. Pellegrino (Eds.), Validation of Score Meaning in the Next Generation of Assessments.
Tindal, G., & Alonzo, J. (2016). Technology-based assessment and problem analysis (pp. 473–492. In S. R. Jimerson, M. K. Burns, & A. M. VanDerHeyden (Eds.) Handbook of Response to Intervention: The Science and Practice of Multi Tiered Systems of Support (2nd edition). New York: Springer Science.
By Julie Alonzo, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
University of Oregon