Tackling Educational Equity Head-On

Strategies for bringing all undergraduates to success.

January 25, 2022

Two phrases much in the news are “learning loss” and “achievement gaps.” We read frequently that at the K-12 level, the pandemic has contributed to a significant erosion of knowledge and skills and greatly exacerbated disparities in reading and math proficiencies on the bases of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The reported losses are, according to some reports, staggering. For example, one organization reported that more than half of third and eighth graders in predominantly Black and Latinx schools are two or more years behind grade level.

If this is indeed true, the long-term consequences for those students and society as a whole are extremely scary.

Last year, The New York Times reported that controversy had erupted over whether “It Hurt Children to Measure Pandemic Learning Loss.” The article quoted a number of experts who worried that reports of learning loss threatened to stigmatize an entire generation.

Not surprisingly, most of the article’s readers’ comments defended grade-level testing as an essential diagnostic tool. As one mother put it, “I honestly have no idea how my child is doing. I know his grades, but COVID openly changed what grades look like. I need the metric of testing to know how much trouble, if any, we are in.”

Many of the comments also expressed snide anti–teachers’ union snark, quoting, with disdain, union leaders’ comments. As one reader put it, “Teachers and administrators claim that ‘a focus on what’s been lost could incite a moral panic’; that testing is ‘unnecessary or even actively harmful’, may ‘impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized’ and ‘misses what students have learned outside of physical classrooms.’”

There were, however, some contrary reader responses. Here was one of the most striking:

“The kids are alright, even if they may not temporarily measure up to somebody’s arbitrary standards. Striver parents are freaking out because they are afraid they cannot check all the boxes they need to get their kids into a college that they can brag to other parents about like. Heaven forbid these kids get off the treadmill for a year and get to goof off a bit … Kids are learning stuff in school which will be obsolete in a decade, but the lessons they are learning about their own strength in just getting through this pandemic will serve them well into the future.”

Achievement testing has clearly become yet another wedge issue in a deeply divided nation.

What should bystanders in the culture wars think?

First, we need to recognize that:

1. Reports of achievement gaps are not new.

Despite more than 20 years of initiatives designed to reduce K-12 gaps in reading and math scores, reported disparities along lines of class and ethnicity have barely budged.

2. Disparities appear before students even enter school.

Schools do not increase disparities and in fact tend to reduce them, at least until eighth grade, when reported gaps tend to persist.

3. Reported achievement gaps aren’t static over time and vary widely across states.

Achievement gaps declined sharply between 1971 and 1999 before stagnating—and the gaps vary significantly across the states, with the gap a third of a standard deviation in Maine and more than three times larger in Connecticut and Wisconsin.

Responses to achievement gaps take a variety of forms. There are those who respond with fatalism, resignation or victim blaming. Fixating on the achievement gap inevitably raises the ugly and pernicious specter that differences in levels of proficiency are intractable and are somehow rooted in genetics, culture, child-rearing practices or environmental factors that aren’t amenable to change.

Then there are those who talk about opportunity or equity gaps instead of achievement gaps. Those terms link skills disparities to unequal access to educational resources. After all, lower-performing students are much more likely to attend schools with more inexperienced teachers and fewer advanced classes, located in high-poverty neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment and economic instability.

What’s my take? My experience at a wide variety of institutions has taught me that:

  • Standardized test scores need to be understood and interpreted in context.
  • Students can make significant leaps in proficiency with the proper support.
  • Predictors of student success include motivation, determination, tenancy, persistence and a record of overcoming obstacles.

It would be a mistake for those of us in postsecondary education to dismiss the controversies surrounding learning loss and achievement gaps as solely a K-12 matter. After all, many of those students will become our students, and we’d be remiss if we fail to take responsibility for their success.

So what should we do?

1. Recognize that relegating entering students into a noncredit remedial track is, in most instances, a recipe for failure.

The alternative to traditional remedial courses is corequisite remediation, which rests on the fact that most “underprepared” students are in fact unevenly prepared and combine specific weaknesses alongside areas of strength.

Corequisite remediation places students immediately in credit-bearing courses while providing them with appropriate supports. Not only does this approach reduce the stigma associated with remedial courses, it helps build academic momentum.

The most successful approaches to corequisite remediation include:

  • Instruction in study skills, including time management, organization, note-taking and test-taking skills and strategies to enhance reading speed and comprehension (for example, reading books from the “outside in”—focusing on the introduction, the conclusion and topic sentences).
  • Mind-set and resilience training, including the recognition that talents can be strengthened through hard work, effective study strategies, a willingness to take advantage of tutoring, scaffolding and feedback.
  • Peer learning, including participation in study groups.
  • Supplemental instruction, including access to corequisite developmental education opportunities like workshops that focus specific skills.
  • Pedagogical strategies that emphasize inquiry, problem solving and active, collaborative and project-based learning.

2. Collect and use data.

By “process analyzing” the student journey, you can isolate the barriers to student success. In an earlier role overseeing student success initiatives, I discovered a host of obstacles:

  • Course unavailability, including classes outside the institution’s time bands.
  • High DFW foundational and gateway courses.
  • Lost transfer credits.
  • Overly complex major requirements.
  • Late shifts in majors.
  • Sharp declines in academic momentum during the sophomore year or following transfer.

Of course, information is only valuable if it is acted upon. Data should prompt a response. These might include proactive interventions by advisers, course redesign, reconsideration of major requirements, optimizing the course schedule and policy resets, especially regarding credit transfer.

3. Move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

We need to do a much better job of treating our students as complex individuals who have distinct interests and aspirations and who possess various strengths and weaknesses. To better meet students’ learning needs, we ought to provide greater personalization in content, pacing and learning trajectories to better meet students’ learning needs.

The keys to a more individualized approach to education are:

  • Surveys and polling. You can’t personalize education unless you familiarize yourself with your students’ interests, aspirations, prior learning experiences, background knowledge and anxieties. I’ve discovered that it’s very helpful to anonymously poll and survey my students not just on the first day of class but throughout the semester. This feedback helps me better tailor my teaching to my students’ interests and needs. Surveys and polls can also help us better understand the level of student engagement, their motivation and interest in a particular topic and activity.
  • Frequent diagnostics and formative assessments. You can’t respond effectively to students’ learning needs if you don’t understand their areas of weakness or confusion. The answer: various kinds of low-stakes quizzing. These might include “screeners,” to catch students who, for whatever reason, seem disengaged or severely underprepared; diagnostics, which result in specific, actionable information about specific problem areas; and progress monitoring, to keep an eye on student acquisition of essential skills and knowledge over the semester. Deploying frequent low-stakes diagnostic quizzing not only helps you pinpoint misperceptions and misunderstandings and isolate ways to improve your instruction, it also helps students process essential course content and transfer knowledge from short- to long-term memory.
  • Granular or “atomic” rubrics. Rather than simply imposing a rubric, work with your students to create a fine-grained grading rubric that clearly identifies the wide range of competencies that you expect students to acquire and demonstrate. Thus, a writing rubric might include not only mechanics—organization, sentence and paragraph structure, and grammar—but also an effective lead or hook, thesis formulation, evidence usage, and acknowledgment of counterarguments.
  • Differentiated instruction. One way to address differences in student preparation, interests and strengths is to offer a variety of learning pathways that differ in terms of content, focus, activities or outcome. You might divide your class into teams, each of which centers its efforts on a different topic, question or problem that team members consider relevant and meaningful. Team-based learning, too often dismissed as group work, can leverage the power of peer mentoring while enhancing students’ collaboration skills, including the ability to pool knowledge, resolve differences, reconcile conflicting perspectives and delegate responsibilities.

Talent, as the Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has demonstrated, is widespread. But too often, talent goes unrecognized. To this I’d add that many of our standard measures of proficiency can mislead us about students’ academic potential.

What colleges should have learned is that a comprehensive student success strategy works. This strategy needs to include:

  • A robust, mandatory new-student orientation. To ensure that all entering students are familiar with campus resources and support services and receive a degree plan and an adviser to turn to for help.
  • Comprehensive student success services. These services should include one-stop access to advising and other support services; for-credit courses to introduce students to study, time management and test-taking skills and provide mind-set training; and learning support centers to help students with writing, math and science.
  • Proactive advising. Intrusive intervention when students fall off track. Triggers should include poor first-semester performance, evidence of academic disengagement, a decline in academic momentum and delayed choice or shifts of majors.
  • Learning communities. Place students in first-year thematic or major-aligned cohorts with a faculty presence, dedicated advising and integrated experiential learning and co-curricular activities that include windows into major and career options.
  • Seamless transfer. Process credit transfer applications quickly, and to the extent possible apply credits to gen ed and major requirements.
  • Corequisite remediation. Replace noncredit remedial courses with credit-bearing courses that offer appropriate supplemental instruction.
  • Structured pathways. Create default degree pathways in high-demand majors that consist of synergistic, appropriately sequenced courses to reduce wasted credits and enhance curricular coherence.
  • Optimized course scheduling. Implement block scheduling to allow commuting students to concentrate their time on campus and guarantee availability of required courses.
  • Workforce connections. Open windows into careers, embed career preparation into curricular pathways and expand earn-learn and internship opportunities.

None of this comes cheap. But if our commitment to equity is genuine, this is the agenda we need to implement.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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