The largest underperforming subgroup in almost every school in America may not be the first set of students that comes to one’s mind. In fact, the largest underperforming subgroup may not even be considered “at-risk” by most educators.

To be clear, we have a moral obligation to immediately and intensively serve those students most vulnerable in our schools. This blog is not suggesting that we veer from that commitment. In most schools, however, these most precious students, students most in need of our very best, do not represent the largest subgroup of students.

The position in which this group of students finds themselves, and the responsibility we have for improving the support that we provide them, stems from the days before No Child Left Behind (NCLB). One could argue that we deserved the clumsy, externally-dictated accountability metrics that mis-measure the success with which schools ensure that all students learn at the very highest levels. Before NCLB, the transparency and specificity with which we assessed and reported our impact on student learning fell short of the levels of service that our stakeholders deserve. Alas, politicians intervened and imposed upon us an inappropriate, unproductive, and perhaps most significantly and long-lastingly damaging, woefully low standard for passing state tests.

Which leads us back to the largest underperforming subgroup in almost every school in America. Due to the hard work and commitment of teachers, and in part, due to the woefully-low level represented by “proficiency” or “meets” on most state tests, the majority of schools in America can boast that over half of their students pass state tests. And yet, the majority of these passing students are not growing at an annual rate sufficiently adequate to ensure that they graduate college or career ready.

The graphic below, taken from a relatively high-performing Kindergarten through eighth grade school in a large urban city, communicates the dilemma in the area of reading:

Falling short of annual growth targets

Meeting annual growth targets

Projected to meet state proficiency standards



Projected to fall short of state proficiency




In the square, the red box at the bottom left represents students who neither passed the state test nor grew at an adequate rate; the yellow box at the bottom right represents students who did not pass the state tests but grew at an adequate rate, suggesting that they may pass state tests soon; the green box at the top right represents students who both passed the state test and grew at an adequate rate, suggesting they are and will likely remain in a position to graduate high school ready to attend college or begin a skilled career; lastly, the orange box at the top left represents students who passed the state tests but did not grow at an adequate rate, suggesting that soon they may not pass state tests, and furthermore, are at risk of graduating high school unprepared for college or a skilled career. It is the orange group of students that represents the largest percentage of underperforming students in the graphic. This phenomenon is true in the majority of schools in the country.

We feel that Response to Intervention (RTI) is frequently misunderstood and misapplied (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2012). Perhaps RTI can best be understood when teachers use the term as a verb in this critical question: Are all students adequately Responding to the Instruction and Intervention that schools provide? This, I fear, is not a question many schools completely address. Commonly, schools focus their interventions and supplemental supports on students who are most in need of support and/or students who are nearly “proficient.” All students should be expected to demonstrate growth each year, as measured by NWEA MAP assessments or some other valid measure. Students whose current levels of performance are low (represented by the red and orange colors in the graphic above) must grow at a much higher rate to close the gap toward college and career readiness. All students must grow – we must differentiate and specialize our supports to ensure this occurs.

If our expectations will embrace ALL students’ progressing at rates adequate to be on track for college and career readiness, differentiation must be a consistent feature of every classroom in every grade level within every school in the country. When evidence reveals that some students are not responding to current levels of differentiated, core instruction, schools must determine ways in which time and support can be varied so that all students are receiving the supports they need. How will we do this? First, we will only succeed collaboratively, behaving as a Professional Learning Community, sharing talents and efforts on behalf of all students in our schools. Next, we must collectively provide differentiated supports within our classrooms. Lastly, it might be necessary to provide supplemental supports to some students within the school day. One way that schools have organized this support is to schedule frequent times within each week, typically from 30 to 45 minutes per day, when students can receive support within their zones of proximal development. Students are grouped based on common assessment data. The instruction that these students receive is based on their highest priority needs, needs that lie within their zones of proximal development. In regard to literacy, Richard Allington notes, “the single-most critical factor that will determine the success of the effort is matching struggling readers with texts they can actually read with a high level of accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.” It is critical to note that these scheduled supports occur in addition to core instruction in English-language arts and mathematics.

We have a grand opportunity to improve the way in which we use data to inform teaching and improve student learning. If we proactively plan, we can shift the conversation from Adequate Yearly Progress – the ability of a student to achieve unacceptably low levels of mastery on one-time-a-year state tests – to significant yearly growth – every student making the progress and specific growth that is required to be on track for college and career readiness.

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