Part 2: How learning progressions can help with both monitoring progress and progress monitoring

Girl in Chemistry class

In my previous blog, I talked about the difference between progress monitoring and monitoring progress. Today, I share my ideas of how learning progressions can inform both.

The key to monitoring progress is understanding what students know and don’t know at any given time. Learning progressions use research on how students learn to clearly define the learning pathway and conceptual milestones along that pathway. For example, my fourth grader’s teacher could compare his work to learning progressions so that she understands more clearly what he knows, and what she can do to move him most efficiently from his “check-minuses” to “check-plusses”.

In progress monitoring, teachers use data on a regular basis to understand students’ learning rates, but it is up to the teacher to formulate an instructional response. If the CBM slope is flat, the instructional next steps may not be entirely clear. If CBMs were linked to learning progressions, it could enhance progress monitoring by making clear how students are approaching problems and what misconceptions are preventing their progress.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) states that effective progress monitoring (NRCLD, 2006, p. 22):

  1. Assesses the specific skills represented in state and local academic standards.
  2. Assesses marker variables that have been demonstrated to lead to the ultimate instructional targets.
  3. Is sensitive to small increments of growth over time.
  4. Is administered efficiently over short periods.
  5. Is administered repeatedly (using multiple forms).
  6. Results in data that can be summarized in teacher-friendly data displays.
  7. Is comparable across students.
  8. Is applicable for monitoring an individual student’s progress over time.
  9. Is relevant to the development of instructional strategies and use of appropriate curriculum that address the area of need.

These characteristics are quite similar to some of the features of learning progressions:

  • Many learning progressions have been linked to standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (#1).
  • What the NRCLD refers to as “marker variables” are commonly referred to in learning progressions as “levels of achievement,” or the conceptual milestones that students pass through as they are learning in a particular domain (#2).
  • The sensitivity to small increments of growth over time is related to the grain size of a learning progression; to be useful for formative assessments learning progressions usually need to have a relatively fine grain size (#3).
  • Formative assessments based on learning progressions should also be administered efficiently and repeatedly, and should be useful for monitoring students’ progress over time (#4 ,#5, and #8).
  • Because learning progressions are based on the scientific literature describing how typical students learn, assessments based on learning progressions should be comparable for most students, although it is necessary to collect empirical evidence that particular subgroups of students follow the same learning pathways (#7).
  • One of the most promising aspects of learning progressions is the potential for providing teachers with instructionally actionable information in the form of “teacher-friendly” student and classroom performance reports and instructional tools and resources that are aligned to the learning progression (#6 and #9). We are engaging in research to learn about the inferences that teachers make from learning progression-based assessment reports. Stay tuned to learn more about these efforts as the year unfolds.

Can learning progressions live up to their promise and really help educators monitor progress and conduct progress monitoring? It is still too early to tell, but there is some encouraging research showing that with ample training and support, teachers can use learning progressions as a framework for their formative assessment and instruction and by doing so, they come to better understand their students’ learning pathways.