The Iowa Core lays groundwork for school districts and teachers to develop curriculum around core standards and work with students to achieve proficiency when meeting those standards. A well-designed instructional unit developed around the standards propels teachers to then use their creativity in designing learning opportunities to take students to higher levels.
Having served in the heterogeneous classroom for much of my career, I do understand its complexities. Still crystal clear in my mind is the daily routine of working with 150-plus students as a teacher of English, language arts, reading, and history. Educators have said for years that we “see our clients in groups,” and I was no exception. The thing is, our minds need to shift to the reality that we are working with individuals grouped in the same room. This way of thinking isn’t how most educators were initially taught, but developing this mindset is an early step to gaining traction in providing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework.
MTSS recognizes first, that each student is an individual learner and then second, that personalizing instruction and educational opportunities to that learner is in his/her best interest. Differentiation serves as the foundation of the core curriculum. Those next steps are planned and meaningful – not busy work until the next unit comes around.
So what steps can a teacher in the regular classroom take in order to break down those large groups of students and interject tiers of support? First and foremost, we must find out what the students already know and can do. One option for finding that information is through pretest:
- Determine first what you would consider as passing the pre-test. Whether you identify success somewhere between 50-90 percent, that’s your call, or work collaboratively with your Professional Learning Community (PLC) to establish that passing score. The key here is to maintain consistency.
- Don’t pretest every detail of a unit. It does not necessarily work well to use a post-test as a pre-test, as post-tests are often too content specific. Pretest the main concepts, as indicated by the standards. Remember, it isn’t about the book, or even about the results of a particular experiment, per se. The vehicle through which the lesson is delivered is not the focus. Note: If your district uses common assessments that are standards based, they could be appropriately used here.
- Chunk the pre-test scores into 1) scores that indicate students can move on to other material, and 2) those that indicate the students need more opportunities to develop their learning. You may even form three groups if scores deviate enough from each other that you see those chunks emerging. You now have what are called flexible groups. Students won’t stay in these groups throughout their semester or year with you, just during this unit or cycle of learning.
- Your flexible groups will determine the next steps – those students who need more rigor than the baseline standards indicate, those students who are on target with grade-level learning, and those students who are challenged by grade-level curriculum and need some remedial support. During the next learning cycle, each group’s makeup may be slightly-to-very different, as determined by the students’ readiness to learn the next pre-tested standards.
Take a look at one science teacher’s account regarding her pretest practices:
The process, though loosely described, is based on the concept of “compacting,” a strategy that is found widely in references regarding differentiation. Compacting can be considered part of a district’s tiered system of opportunity. This graphic represents one district’s tier structure.
Pretesting may be considered a high-prep approach to the MTSS landscape especially if the test needs to be created before being administered. With that in mind, sound teaching practices that involve frequent checks for understanding may help us get our footing in MTSS. This list offers some no-to-low-prep strategies to put your developing mindset into practice.
The Iowa Core represents knowledge and skill that all students should know and be able to do – and should be considered a launch for further learning. Students meet the standard and have the opportunity to advance in their learning and to enjoy enriching opportunities they otherwise might not have a chance to experience. In order for this to happen, teachers should pretest students when possible, frequently check for student understanding against the standards, and use the data to create flexible learning groups. It is important that students and parents know and understand what you are doing and why, and an important reminder is that the flexible groups are temporary until the next learning cycle.
Making data-driven decisions by first finding out where students are in their learning and then taking pragmatic steps to move them forward in your tiered options is logical and respectful of that student as a learner. With Iowa Core standards used as a base, not a ceiling, students can clearly understand the expectations that need to be met before moving on in their learning. A multi-tiered system of supports acknowledges that students have varying needs, and those needs must be considered to optimize the learning time we have with them.