Educators may have become jaundiced about a critical but complicated topic in the teaching-learning process—assessment. RTI-based practices require evidence, but we face a paradox—many educators believe that we assess too much, and yet we do not possess the information required to inform our work. Educators also feel that they do not have time for assessments.
We recommend that all educators inventory the assessments that they are currently administering to check that the timely information that is needed to ensure that all students learn at high levels is being gathered, but without redundancies and inefficiencies.
Educators will benefit from embracing the notion that instruction and assessment are inextricably linked, and that checks for under- standing and observations count and can inform instruction and grading. It is important to recognize that screening and pre-assessment, as is the case with other tests, can actually save time. Screening reveals which students have significant deficits that will almost certainly cause them to experience difficulties within the year, at some time and in some content area. Initiating supports immediately saves time and preserves students’ belief in their own efficacy. Pre-assessing prior to units will reveal students who have gaps in their knowledge of immediate prerequisite skills—gaps that will likely necessitate interventions within the unit. We recommend that educators pre-teach prerequisites before and at the beginning of units to fill gaps, prepare students for success, and minimize the need to spend time later on interventions. Pre-assessments can also reveal that students already possess knowledge of content in upcoming units. By compacting con- tent, educators can avoid wasting time on content students already understand, thereby allowing time for more depth of study or more practice with other content. Leaders must have conversations about these benefits with staff members who feel that there is not time for more assessment. And, they must help educators with the practical steps required to inventory assessments, link instruction and assessments, and screen and pre-assess in a successful way.
RTI-based practices will also inevitably raise the issue of fairness. Some teachers express the belief that it is not fair to other students— students who passed the test the first time—when we allow multiple opportunities for students to take a test. And some teachers feel that we are not teaching responsibility when we allow multiple opportunities. Educators have an important decision to make, because a firm commitment to all students learning at high levels and a firm commitment to only one chance to demonstrate that learning are entirely incompatible. We all recognize, as parents, caregivers, and/or teachers, that children rarely learn at the same rate and in the same manner. To terminate instruction at an arbitrary date and suggest that learning of that content is at an end, and the one-time opportunity to demonstrate mastery is upon us, defies all logic. But what about teaching responsibility? It is our position that responsibility is better taught by demanding that students persevere until they succeed than by giving them only one chance to do so. What are we teaching students when we communicate that they don’t have to actually learn the content being assessed once they’ve failed that first test—that they are off the hook and need not keep trying? Does it not teach responsibility when we demand that students keep up with the new content and receive additional support on the old content until they reach the level of understanding needed for them to be successful? We are teaching children perseverance; we are insisting that they learn how to learn, and continuously strive to improve. The “real world” in which there are no second chances for which some teachers think they are preparing students is a myth. Colleges and universities increasingly embed multiple layers of support for students. Careers have always provided multiple opportunities to enter professions: multiple chances to pass the state teaching exam; multiple opportunities to pass the bar; multiple opportunities to revise the thesis or dissertation. It will not be easy, and it will take collaborative action to design a system that provides remediation and allows for additional chances to take assessments. However, we cannot continue to defend a stance that denies the reality of the ways and rates at which individuals learn. It is disingenuous, or worse, to craft mission statements that promise high levels of learning for all if we retain the fine print that expresses that there will be no second chances for the 5- to 18-year-olds we serve.
Conversations about fairness often address the specific question of how many chances students should receive to behave, to learn, or to be successful. The simple answer is, as many chances as it takes. In response to questions about fairness, questions that almost seem rhetorical, we are inclined to ask the questioner, “What are the other options? To give up? To dismiss the student from school? To break the news to parents that we cannot help their child learn?”