president’s notes

Fall 2020

Student Readiness in a COVID-19 World

Institutional change is hard. People have to be willing to take risks and persist through the inevitable challenges to see real change at any meaningful scale. Over the past fifteen years, NROC staff have devoted most of their time and energy to inspiring people to action and then supporting them in their transformative educational work. Together, we have been working to change the way college and career readiness is approached and supported.

Abstract red landscape with COVID-19 virus illustration
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many people and institutions into changing practices whether they would normally choose to do so or not.

This seismic shift is inspiring many of our secondary, postsecondary, and adult education partners to expand their work with us, and we find ourselves supporting new engagements at a scale that was previously difficult to achieve. Collectively, we are rethinking pervasive policies and procedures that don’t seem to have an educational purpose and are instead responses to the friction that arises when conventions don’t reflect the reality on the ground.

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Take, for example, the business of defining certain college-aspiring students as 'unprepared' and designating them for remediation. What if we considered the expectation of acquired (and prerequisite) skills in a different light?

What if we made no assumptions about the extent to which students arrive at a new class or institution with some specific set of core skills intact and ready to be applied? In this case, you’d presumably employ tools and techniques to assess and improve key competencies on an as-needed basis. For most classrooms, it would make sense to check your premises at the start of the course or program, so that any serious knowledge or skill gaps can be identified and addressed as early in the term as possible; check prerequisite expectations continuously throughout a course or term so that students have a chance to put themselves in the best position to learn and apply the follow-on knowledge and skills; and check retention and understanding as a course or program draws to a close, informing students and teachers about areas of emphasis and attention in subsequent learning experiences.

Abstract yellow landscape with multicolored arrows and circles
This process of continuous, formative assessment, with an emphasis on improving knowledge and skills (as opposed to simply flagging students as deficient), has historically been dismissed as too difficult or impractical. But things have changed.

We cannot afford to keep failing students, and learners cannot afford to believe that it's sufficient to just 'pass the course' when key knowledge and skills for later learning remain unmastered.

Many of the principles and processes that define our educational system are inefficient and mired in a pre-technological mindset. Modern technology solutions, like EdReady, reduce the logistical and philosophical hurdles that hampered prior reform efforts, and we need more people and institutions to examine how these resources can improve existing practice.

Prior to the pandemic, NROC members like Jacksonville State University, Montana Digital Academy, and the North Carolina Community College System were challenging the boundaries of student success. Now, these institutions are thinking even more radically about how our solutions can support the evolution of outmoded practices. One of the key benefits of the NROC membership model is that it neither limits the number of students served nor the diversity of use cases deployed. COVID-19 has converted what was forever considered a problem that only accrued to an at-risk subgroup into a problem that affects literally everybody. We've long advocated that we're better served by thinking of problems of transfer, progressions, and readiness as universal issues.

We get ourselves into trouble when we create arbitrary distinctions between learners who are 'ready' versus students who are 'not ready'. Instead, we should normalize and institutionalize the process of giving every learner the opportunity to ascertain readiness in key areas and continuously revisit and strengthen core skills.

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With appropriate technological supports, a formative assessment approach is easily deployed, readily scaled, and can dramatically improve student and educator outcomes.

As an example of how this approach solves some of the pandemic’s fallout, we can look to the current trends in higher-education admissions policies. Many colleges and universities have chosen to waive existing admissions requirements for next year’s freshman class, explicitly stating that they don’t expect learners to have mastered significant chunks of material that would normally be required as a condition of application and entry. However, if these skills are considered important for student success in college-level studies, then learners will need to recover them at some point. And if the skills aren’t important for all students, then personalized instruction should be employed to support individuals (or cohorts) as appropriate.Meeting all students where they are probably seems untenable. But, when we consider the capabilities of digital technologies like EdReady, the evolution of our practices becomes manageable. When everyone is ‘remedial’, no one is ‘remedial’. This lens helps us build policies and practices that support every learner individually at scale.