Beyond the Rainbow: Understanding Each Child through Effective Skill Analysis

Laura M. Schnebelen, Principal of John Burroughs Elementary, reflects on her staff's use of skills analysis to move beyond basic categorization of students.

Several years ago, my staff and I began to implement Ohio's School Improvement Process. This includes following the 5-step process:

1. Collect and chart pre-data
2. Analyze data for trends
3. Determine adult change in practice
4. Implement those changes with fidelity 
5. Analyze post-data to determine effectiveness of instruction

The process has provided a framework for discussions and encouraged collaboration between staff. In fact, I look forward to starting my days with grade-level TBT meetings; not because we are efficient in moving through the process but because my staff's conversations are so student-centered and rich in thought. So, how has this process evolved to be so meaningful? When I reflect back, one of the most influential ideas was moving "beyond the rainbow". 

A pivotal step in implementing the 5-step process is organizing student achievement. In many cases, this means separating students into four categories:
o    far below (red)
o    just below (yellow)
o    at (green)
o    above (blue)

Based on the level of achievement, students groups are provided specific instruction. But what about a student scoring in the "red" group who already has the skills, but misunderstands specific vocabulary (knows how to model multiplication, but understood “product” to mean adding and forgets the meaning of “array”)? How about the student scoring in the "green" who can also model multiplication, but does not understand the relationship between multiplication and division? By simply grouping student achievement into ‘rainbow’ categories, we, as teachers, may overlook gaping holes in a student's understanding. We may also underestimate our students' understanding.

As we transitioned to Ohio's New Learning Standards, my staff recognized that each standard is packed full of information and student expectations. We also recognized that meeting parts of the standard does not mean "mastery" of the standard. As a way of addressing both the robust nature of the standards and the need to guarantee student understanding of its entirety, my staff has developed a basic skill analysis system. Take, for example, 4.OA.4

4. Find all factor pairs for a whole number in the range 1–100. Recognize that a whole number is a multiple of each of its factors. Determine whether a given whole number in the range 1–100 is a multiple of a given one-digit number. Determine whether a given whole number in the range 1–100 is prime or composite.

This one standard requires students to find factors within 100, recognize and determine multiples and understand the concept of prime and composite numbers. Simply categorizing students by color may, very well, miss the true understanding each child has about each component of the standard. Using a skill analysis, though, allows the teacher to truly analyze understanding and misconceptions for each student.  See below for the skill analysis of 4.OA.4.

Use of a skill analysis has made my staff more attuned to our students' learning strengths and obstacles. The greater impact, though, has been on how instruction is delivered. Traditional small-group lessons reflect the same students (4-5 at the table) being taught in a linear fashion. Use of the skill analysis has provided framework for flexible, intentional grouping. Instead of organizing guided reading or guided math instruction based on "level", my staff has begun organizing by skill. This allows them to instruct students on what they need, build perfunctory skills if necessary and extend understanding when appropriate. As shown in the example, the skill analysis can then be used to document mastery during core instruction, and to determine who needs reteaching of a specific skill during post-assessment.

So what makes me look forward to TBT meetings, so much? It's not moving through the five steps, nor is it discussing student achievement trends. It is seeing my staff rethink our instruction, grow and stretch ourselves to better meet the needs of our students. Using this simple skill analysis has provided the setting for my staff to do just that.