The impact of remote instruction on students has been discussed a great deal during the past ten months, while our nation’s teachers grapple with the complexities of implementing distance learning. As teachers and students engage daily in e-learning, with some schools pivoting back and forth between a hybrid model of remote and in-person schooling, the topic of what it actually means for students to be at “grade level” has been trending. Prior to COVID-19, students were considered to be on “grade level” if they had mastered the skills and concepts at their expected level of difficulty as measured by formal assessments and district/state standards.
As the nation has dealt with disruption of standardized test cycles and daily instruction, the term “being at grade level” has become increasingly nuanced. That said, throughout my work as an MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) consultant, there is one question that has remained constant regardless of the pivot from in-person instruction to remote classroom settings, from both teachers and administrators alike: “How do I catch my students up, especially my students that are trending two or more years below grade level?”.
In order to answer this question, I regularly ask my district partners to look inward and participate in a guided self-reflection of their current practices. I use the following reflection questions to determine both how to provide support when students are significantly behind, and how to be proactive when students are just beginning to struggle. These reflection questions also help to ensure the district’s MTSS implementation is working towards improving outcomes for all students and is based upon multiple factors, and not just tiering students or providing intervention based upon a single assessment or solitary concern.
Reflection #1: What are your student’s areas of strength? What are your student’s areas of need? Is your core appropriate for most of your students? How do you know?
A core curriculum is the collection of strategies that are used routinely with ALL students in a general education setting. Schools and districts implementing MTSS look to their core curriculum to meet the needs of 80% (or more) of their students. To state the obvious, in order to know which students the core curriculum is serving and which are falling behind, it is important to take a look at the big picture. How are ALL students performing? To determine the answers to these questions, one must first answer:
Are normed benchmark screeners being used routinely? When benchmark screeners are consistently given in the fall, winter and spring, teachers can quickly identify their student’s areas of strength, as well as their areas of need. This data is critical in order to understand if most students are progressing, who needs significant or proactive support, and what specific areas of need will receive targeted intervention.
Are there any trends and patterns in benchmark screening data that exist in specific grade levels or classrooms? Is there a grade level or classroom that is an outlier? In what way and what does this identify?
Learn about the Branching Minds Benchmark Growth Report:Understand the current performance level and rate of growth across grade levels and campuses based on existing benchmark data.This report pairs both the percent of students meeting grade-level expectations with the average rate of growth across benchmark windows. This combination of information allows administrators to easily identify which schools and/or grade-levels are underperforming and not on track to meet expectations. This Benchmark Growth Report will also show growth by subgroup for race, ethnicity, ELL, SPED, G&T and SES. Request a demo.
Reflection #2: When students are found to be falling behind, do you use research-based interventions consistently and have confidence that they specifically match the students’ areas of need? How do you know if the interventions you picked are working?
Intervention is a program or a set of steps to help students improve in specific areas, and it is never a “one size fits all” approach. Intervention can be used to provide support with academic, behavior and/or social/emotional needs, and can successfully close knowledge gaps when applied with fidelity.
Within MTSS implementations, once students are identified with specific needs based upon multiple factors (screening data, observations, collaboration etc.), evidence-based intervention can be applied for areas of need and closely monitored. During my work with teachers, I often find that they can inadvertently spend hours and hours trying to pick appropriate interventions for their students. A simple google search for an intervention will yield tens of thousands of results, and it can be overwhelming to review even a handful of the search results, much less pick one that is evidence-based and the “just right” support for a student's exact area of need. In order for an intervention support to be successful, it should be backed by research and will never have a “one size fits all” approach. Intervention works best when:
A specific area of need is targeted with a research-based intervention;
It is carried out for a specific number of weeks, based upon the evidence of its’ success; and,
It is frequently monitored for progress.
Students with a knowledge gap of two or more years will need to participate in a more intense intervention approach and picking the “just right” support becomes even more critical. In order to ensure that my clients are selecting the “just right approach,” I ask them to “pre-qualify” or curate a list of interventions that can be consistently used throughout their campus and that have a valid, reliable research base and set clear expectations around frequency of administration. In addition, research-based interventions that utilize a scaffolded approach (such as graphic organizers, mentor texts for students to emulate, previewing text and the use of visuals) provide support for all students, and are fundamental for students working to close significant knowledge gaps.
Learn about our library of evidence-based interventions: Thousands of Evidence-Based Interventions and Accommodations for Reading, Writing, Math, Behavior, SEL & More.Learn more.
Furthermore, students in need of this support also require multiple opportunities to practice a new skill while catching up to grade level expectations. Although it can be difficult to find time in teachers’ packed days to provide frequent intervention for struggling students, there are considerations teachers can think about when making scheduling decisions. Looking at how far below grade level a student is performing, the student’s attention span, and the complexity of the skill the student is working to master can help shape the frequency/duration for targeted interventions. It is important to note that if an intervention is provided with fidelity and progress monitoring data is not indicating movement towards mastery, the intervention should be re-evaluated for the “just right” fit for the student’s area of need. Progress monitoring within MTSS is important for all students receiving intervention, and critical for students with significant knowledge gaps. Frequently checking in on progress allows educators to make informed decisions about the effectiveness of the intervention and tailor the intervention to meet students’ needs, or to move on to a different intervention.
Reflection #3: How often do my teachers collaborate with each other and across grade levels about student needs?
During collaboration, teachers can safely share their understandings of student areas of strength and areas of need across academic, cognitive, social-emotional and behavioral skills. In a recent survey, only 31 percent of teachers reported that they have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers (Johnston & Berglund, 2018). As discussed earlier, MTSS requires multiple data sources to identify student’s needs, including collaboration and observations from teachers across the curriculum. When teachers are given the time to collaborate, amazing things can happen! They can regularly discuss student’s areas of strength and need, and specific knowledge gaps can be understood and addressed proactively, rather than allowing them to grow cumulatively year over year. Through collaboration, intervention plans can be shared, and teachers can appropriately support students and each other.
Discover the Branching Minds Insight Survey: The Branching Minds Insight Survey guides the collection of teachers’ observations of students' academic, cognitive, SEL and behavior skills necessary to achieve success. Used independently or collaboratively, the Insight Survey scaffolds the qualitative data collection to complement the quantitative data, and present students’ strengths and challenges across the skill areas predictive of success. Request a demo to learn more
During our work together to implement MTSS and support all students, schools participate in a guided self-analysis of their core curriculum, benchmark data, use of research-based intervention and consistent collaboration. As a result, teachers are able to successfully meet their student’s needs, including closing their students’ significant knowledge gaps and work towards success for all.
Johnston, W., & Berglund, T. (2018, February 28). American Teachers Could Use More Time to Collaborate. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2217.html
Library of Thousands of RTI/MTSS Evidence-Based Interventions
Over 2000 evidence-based activities, strategies, tools, apps, and programs
At Branching Minds, we pride ourselves for having the most robust library of evidence-based K-12 interventions and accommodations of any online platform available to schools. Our library includes over 2000 evidence-based activities, strategies, tools, apps, and programs collected from the most trusted and respected hubs of evidence-based supports, including the Florida Center for Reading Research, What Works Clearinghouse, Evidence for ESSA, Intervention Central, the IRIS Center from Vanderbilt University, and Sanford Harmony. All of the supports have been reviewed by our team of learning scientists and sorted by ESSA guidelines for determining tiers of evidence. The supports include detailed descriptions to help teachers understand what each support is, why to use it, how to use it in alignment with the evidence, what the evidence is and provide them with any materials necessary to implement the support.
Deanne Rotfeld Levy is a consultant for Branching Minds regarding MTSS best practices. Deanne is also a University Supervisor at the National College of Education at National Louis University. Deanne previously served as Vice President of Customer Success for Discovery Education and was a Chicago Public Schools special education teacher and case manager. Deanne holds a Master of Arts in Teaching Special Education from National Louis University.
Connect with Deanne Rotfeld Levy, M.A.T.
WEBINAR: Evaluating the Quality and Effectiveness of your MTSS Practice