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To Close the Achievement Gap, Focus on Fundamental Thinking Skills

JULY 14, 2023

The Nation’s Report Card is in…and the results are not encouraging. The 2023 Long-Term Trend assessment for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that 8th-grade scores for both reading and math are at their lowest levels in decades

What is the cause of these educational losses? And more importantly, what can teachers, school and district leaders, and parents do about it? To get students back on track, we need to focus on the fundamental cognitive skills students need to learn effectively.

Why Are Students Falling Behind?

The NAEP—often called “The Nation’s Report Card”—is given to a representative sample of 4th and 8th graders every two years. The test includes assessments of both math and reading. Students are scored as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced based on their overall mastery of grade-level standards. Because of the way it is designed, administered and analyzed, the NAEP is considered to be a valid and reliable way to compare student achievement results over time. (It is not designed to assess progress for individual students over time.) 

The latest NAEP trends report is indeed worrying. It shows that average scores for 8th graders in both reading and math posted the steepest performance decline since the 1970s—erasing decades of hard-won progress in math and reading achievement. Even more concerning, the losses were especially steep for the lowest-achieving students; students in the lowest quartile in reading posted the lowest scores ever recorded, and the bottom 10% of students in math were also at an all-time low. The achievement gap between Black and white students also widened. It appears that the greatest losses have been concentrated among our most vulnerable students. 

The 2022 NAEP results show that a large number of students are not proficient in grade-level standards at either the 4th- or 8th-grade level. 

  • In 4th grade math, 25% of students scored below basic, 39% at basic, 29% at proficient, and just 8% at advanced—declining 5 points on average from 2019. 
  • In 8th grade math, 38% of students scored below basic, 35% at basic, 20% at proficient, and 7% at advanced—declining 8 points on average from 2019. 
  • In 4th grade reading, 37% of students scored below basic, 29% at basic, 24% at proficient, and 9% at advanced—declining 3 points on average from 2019. 
  • In 8th grade reading, 30% of students scored below basic, 39% at basic, 27% at proficient, and 4% at advanced—declining 3 points on average from 2019.

What’s to blame for these recent losses? The obvious answer is, of course, the pandemic. Pandemic learning loss is a real and pervasive phenomenon linked to the disruptions that took place due to school closures and hybrid learning. The latest NAEP trends report shows that more than two years later, many students are still behind. 

However, the truth is too many students were already behind, even before the pandemic. In 2019, just 35% of 4th graders and 33% of 8th graders were proficient or above in reading, and 41% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders were proficient or above in math. That means roughly two-thirds of our students were already failing to meet grade-level targets before the pandemic hit.

A Focus on the Fundamentals

Clearly, the strategies used in most classrooms are not working for a majority of our students. This isn’t the fault of teachers: teachers are working harder than ever to help students catch up and master grade-level standards. And it isn’t the fault of students: students cannot learn effectively if they have never been taught how.  

The problem lies in a mismatch between the way content is delivered and the way the brain is wired to learn. Teachers are not cognitive scientists, and they shouldn’t have to be. But they do need tools and strategies that are aligned with cognitive research to maximize student learning. 

At the classroom level, we tend to focus on the content that we want students to learn. In other words, the facts and figures: What are the parts of the cell? What were the causes of the American Revolution? How do you factor a polynomial? But it’s equally (if not more) important to focus on the kind of thinking we want students to do. Students cannot master the content if they do not have the fundamental thinking skills they need to be able to learn effectively. 

To get students back on track, educators need to focus on the fundamentals: teaching students how to learn. That means teaching them how to activate metacognition, ask better questions, and engage higher-order thinking skills. When we help our students build fundamental cognitive skills and align teaching and learning methods with the way the brain works, we can help our students accelerate learning and get back on track with grade-level standards. 

That’s how Thinking Maps work. Thinking Maps are tools for brain-based learning and thinking across all academic domains. Instead of just trying to cram in content, students actually learn how to recognize what kind of thinking a learning task demands and activate the right cognitive processes for the task. By making thinking visible to students, Thinking Maps reduce the cognitive load of learning and allow students to engage more effectively with complex ideas and grade-level content. 

If we want to address pandemic learning loss, we need to give both students and teachers effective tools for teaching and learning. That means looking beyond test scores and considering what kinds of cognitive skills students need to develop for success. When students know how to learn, they are able to truly thrive—in the classroom and beyond. 

Talk to your Thinking Maps Representative to get started today. 

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