The Iceberg Problem – Assessment, Accountability and Policy Around Unfinished Learning

More than ever, U.S. educators are experiencing unyielding pressure to prove their effectiveness – measured most commonly through student performance on standardized tests. As the chief indicator by which most districts judge a school staff’s success, these educational policies signal to teachers the demand in focusing exclusively on grade-level material. But what happens in the case that a sixth-grade student shows up to your math class on the first day of school without the proper proficiency and tools from fifth grade? Do you cater to that student and risk taking time from your rigorous sixth-grade curriculum? Or do you march forward and hope that the student is able to fill in the gaps?

Current educational policies don’t allow teachers room for teaching outside of grade-level curriculum, much less teaching to one student specifically, and instructional time is limited. Treating students with a “one size fits all” curriculum and teaching for a test is severely impacting early education across the nation. When students arrive into a new school year with unfinished years of prior learning – especially in studies that are distinctly cumulative, like math – our current system takes away opportunities to succeed.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t affect a small minority. According to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 40 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in math, while the stats for black and Hispanic students drop to 19 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In Atlanta, math proficiency was shown to fall from 31 percent in fourth grade to 19 percent in eighth grade, a pattern common in urban districts.

“In every single state, proficiency levels drop in math between the fourth grade and the eighth grade,” said Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms Innovation Partners. “This is not the case in reading. Between the fourth and eighth grades, reading proficiency levels actually go up or stay flat in almost two-thirds of all states. Math is different.” Because math is cumulative, students will struggle with grasping concepts like percentages when they never learned decimals; and assuming that teachers can somehow make up for these years and get kids up-to-speed while also comprehensively covering grade-level material is unrealistic, adding to years of unfinished learning that accumulates, persists and manifests down the line. 

These effects are the central study of The Iceberg Problem: How Assessment and Accountability Policies Cause Learning Gaps to Persist Below the Surface….and What To Do About It, a report published from New Classrooms that posits the flaws in today’s assessment policies through the lens of middle school mathematics while seeking to create pragmatic solutions through accountability and innovative learning tools.

The fastest way to accelerate student learning is to provide opportunities where students are challenged at the appropriate level for their existing skills and knowledge—not too easy, not too difficult … This insight, known across educational and psychological literature as the “zone of proximal development,” undergirds many widely used curricular and instructional strategies.

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But policies from district, state, and federal educational authorities signal to [teachers] to focus their instruction on grade-level standards each year regardless of their students’ zones of proximal development.

– Executive Summary excerpt, The Iceberg Problem

The Iceberg Problem finds its name from the representational model of these “grade-level standards” that discourage teachers from backtracking to teach students behind their grade-level curriculum, even when there are likely years of unfinished learning below this surface. By restricting teachers to a limited scope of content based on a student’s grade rather than their ability, these educational policies only measure a small portion of students’ knowledge and actual aptitude remains hidden under the surface.

In developing the Iceberg report, New Classrooms drew from nearly a decade of experience researching, developing and operating Teach to One: Math – an interactive educational program deployed across 15 states, serving hundreds of teachers and over 40,000 students. The program used live, online, and collaborative learning for math students grades 5-11, offering targeted and personalized instruction each day. Partner schools implemented the model in different ways with varying degrees of exposure to grade-level material depending on preferences, but significant results appeared.

New Classrooms’ report cites a study from MarGrady Research that found that, overall, students served through Teach to One: Math over their three years in middle school grew 20 percentile points (from the 15th percentile to the 35th percentile), while those schools that were more focused on overall learning growth (including below-, on-, and above-grade-level skills) saw their students grow by 38 percentile points and those more focused on annual grade-level proficiency grew 7 percentile points. The report also explicitly notes their belief that “grade-level exposure matters,” but it’s the educational policy and exclusive focus on grade-level material that studies continue to show “keeps some students from filling critical pre-grade gaps and others from accelerating beyond grade-level expectations.”

This deep-rooted belief that lies within our educational systems – namely, as Iceberg points out, the idea that grade-level content is always best for all middle school-aged math students – has little evidence to back it up. In the 2000s, for example, a policy push to place eighth-grade students into algebra who would have otherwise taken pre-algebra resulted in a Brookings study, “The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra,” that found the efforts created “unintended and damaging consequences.” The study found that high-achieving students – those inclined to take eighth-grade algebra, scoring at or above the 90th percentile – made up 27 percent of advanced classes in the year 2000.

By 2005, that number dropped to 20 percent while low achievers rose from 3 percent to 7.8 percent in the same time frame. This rise, Brooking reports, accounted for around 120,000 U.S. students who were set up to fail, now struggling in advanced classes for which they were wholly unprepared. The same students were found in a 2005 NAEP report (cited in Brookings) to score even below the average fourth-grade student. 

Taking into account parameters within the ESSA requirements – namely, that students grades 3-8 take an end-of-year, grade-aligned assessment, and secondly that results from those assessments be included in statewide accountability systems Iceberg offers a number of recommendations:

  1. Measure learning growth: the report suggests that using adaptive assessments can measure true learning growth and curb ESSA’s propensity to only find grade-level proficiency. By catering assessments to students on different levels, states and districts can measure true learning gains based on where students started the school year.
  2. Modify accountability systems: by modifying state accountability systems, schools can measure learning growth from their students over multiple years or weigh key transition grades in order to apply more adaptive assessments for students who need a different pathway. This modification would allow for the creation of supplemental growth indicators, all within the bounds of ESSA.
  3. Launch “Math Innovation Zones”: these zones would identify innovative districts and schools and match them with partners, providing a unique accountability system focused on learning growth instead of grade-level proficiency. Creating this space to “meet students where they are” could potentially be a better marker for ensuring college and career readiness.
  4. Make available high-quality instructional supports: give teachers the time, resources, and training to better address unfinished learning and cater to different levels of proficiency.
  5. Advance a future vision for assessment and accountability: Icebergintends to help shape a future policy landscape that is led with transparency and equity; a future where innovative instructional approaches, like Teach to One: Math, are tailored to each student’s unique strengths and needs.

While the consensus agrees that accountability should continue to be a focus in improving our nation’s schools, modifications and innovations must continue to be at the forefront of policy decisions. The Iceberg Problem provides a better understanding of flaws in the status quo and argues innovative programs deserve more attention from policymakers. Successfully addressing students’ unfinished learning from prior years while maintaining high academic expectations is adding loads of pressure in our current educational climate, but policymakers and administrators must be diligent in developing strategies to lift up future generations rather than allowing the ice to harden, deeper and deeper below the surface.  

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