Creating Support Systems for the Use of Learning Progressions

Teachers report they need more sophisticated and nuanced support systems to understand and facilitate student learning. These supports go beyond state standards, the district curriculum and pacing guide, and published textbook materials. How do I support this claim? Evidence!

I have been lucky enough to gather evidence about what teachers want through empirical studies in collaboration with states, through research collected with a nationally representative sample of science educators, through findings of grant funded research, and through conversations with the many brilliant teachers with whom I have worked or who have taught my own children.

Here is what I have learned: Many teachers want

  • prioritized standards that signal what is most important to monitor as children progress throughout the year coupled with a rough sequence of coverage;
  • a learning and evidence management system that helps them track and measure student growth over time, easily;
  • examples of what proficiency looks like, authentically; and
  • standardized exemplar tasks aligned to state standards that they can use, if they want to, to help understand what standards look like in action.

Other sources (e.g., Heritage et al., 2009; Schneider & Andrade, 2013) from formative assessment research also suggest the following would be helpful:

  • supports for monitoring student learning over time in a way that focuses teachers not on the number of correct responses a child is providing, but rather, whether those responses represent more sophisticated reasoning and content acquisition than was observed previously;
  • supports in interpreting student work and using that evidence to take instructional action; and
  • differentiated supports that honors where teachers are in their own development and not one size fits all.

Some policy makers are largely focused on tracking growth based on the content and curriculum of the student’s grade of record.  This is certainly a fair perspective given how teacher and school accountability systems are set up. But consider this alternative perspective:

  • To engage in formative practice, we need to identify where a child is.  
  • To measure growth, we have to allow teachers to explore what the child is thinking in the content area centered in what has and has not yet been taught.

Visualize a ruler measuring 12 inches. The ruler is consistent across time. It has equal increments on a continuum from 0 to 12. Now consider that 0 to 1 inch could be what we want students to learn in kindergarten; 1 inch to 2 inches could be what we want students to learn in first grade; 2 inches to 3 inches could be what we want students to learn in second grade and so forth. If a second-grade teacher only measures and teaches from 2 to 3 inches, our educational system misses the student who started the year at 1.5 inches. Our system misses the student who starts the year at 3.2 inches. We miss understanding where all students are and only capture growth of most students. Moreover, because even the most advanced students are not perfect, we allow a student at 2.8 to spend the year waiting for the 20% of the curriculum he or she needs. Or we miss seeing that such a child, in truth, already is at 3.0.

Can we allow a teacher to use the entire ruler so they can focus on what a child needs? I think we could. But we also have to build support systems around teachers that remove the ambiguity of what the targets look like so teachers can move agilely to diagnose and meet student needs.

Learning progressions are an underpinning foundation of such a support system as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Intended Use of a Progression Based System adapted from Schneider and Johnson (2019)

Learning Progressions

Learning progressions can be a support for instructional actions because they offer likely instructional pathways of what students need to master across time. They provide the big picture of what should be learned across a year, support a teacher’s instructional planning, and act as a touchstone for formative assessment (Heritage, 2008). Smith, Wiser, Anderson, and Krajcik (2006) defined a learning progression as the description of the increasingly more sophisticated ways of reasoning in the content domain that follow one another as a student learns. Clements and Sarama (2014) noted learning progressions (frequently referred to as learning trajectories in their work) describe levels of student thinking. Clement and Sarama also noted students need instructional activities to help students progress along the continuum as a component of a learning progression. Learning progressions can be the foundation to support teachers and students, but coupled with standards, curriculum and pacing guides, are not enough.

Furtak, Morrison, and Kroog (2014) advised “tools alone will not help teachers realize shifts in practice.” Rather tools, the progression and the tasks, are a starting point. Learning progressions must, in their view, not only describe how students learn (this is learning science), they must be an interpretive aid in analyzing that information (this is formative practice), and a support for using the information for action. We want the action a teacher takes to be the right action for a student. To accomplish this goal districts and states need to plan policy supports, professional development, and exemplar tools.

  1. Tools to Help Teachers Collect Accurate Information about Student Learning

We need to provide additional methods of communicating the intent of the standards to teachers. Teachers need to see exemplar tasks tied to learning progressions so that teachers have supports for recognizing assignments that elicit the thinking of students in a particular stage of development. Sequences of sample tasks contextualized along a learning progression can help teachers visualize what developing, approaching, on-track, and advanced assignments in the standards look like. If we want teachers to differentiate for students, we need to provide instructional and assessment tasks that support them in doing this. We have to provide instructional and assessment tasks that are technically sound so that they elicit the right evidence that teachers can use to locate students into the correct progression stage. Using tasks that are too easy, too difficult, or technically flawed means teachers will not be able to make the right instructional decisions for each student. Any decision we make on where to locate a student in instruction is high stakes for the student.

Tools to help teachers collect accurate information about student learning are best created when teams of experts in learning science, assessment development, accommodations and accessibility, content experts, and curriculum come together and unite. A team of experts that includes teachers ensures we are eliciting the right evidence for instructional decision making. A team of experts that includes accommodations and accessibility experts ensures we are not creating, unintentionally, barriers to accessing content or students being able to show what they know.

What does a learning progression and task system look like? Here is one example.

2. Tools to Help Teachers Making Accurate Inferences About a Student’s Present Level of Performance

In addition to collecting evidence of student learning from purposefully created assignments, teachers need to make the right decision about where to place the student. They have to analyze and interpret the information collected. Existing research evidence suggests that because this is a time consuming, complex task, teachers rarely analyze student work at an individual student level. Teachers have reported they tend to analyze student learning at a holistic-classroom level using average test scores on assessments as the primary data point (Schneider & Meyer, 2012; Hoover and Abrams, 2013) or they interpret the percent of 100 of an assignment.

Information about the average child does not help a teacher diagnose gaps, confusions, or beauty in thinking for a single student (Schneider & Andrade, 2013). Such an approach has been shown to cause decreases in achievement over time (Schneider & Meyer, 2012).  In addition, percent out of 100 on an assignment does not tell you if the student responded to an easy or complex task that differentiates a novice or advanced student. Task characteristics are central to understanding where students are located along a continuum.

States or district leaders will likely want to organize the collection of student work exemplars from these tasks. They will want to provide short professional development training videos that can be accessed on the fly. Short videos can showcase how student responses are matched to a progression. Providing exemplar work does three things.

  • Exemplar student work aligned to learning progressions shows teachers authentically what student growth looks like.
  • Exemplar student work illuminates what it looks like when a child reaches the state or district’s definition of proficiency.
  • Exemplar student work helps teachers identify students in more novice or sophisticated states of development.

Teachers have to center their analysis on identifying what the child can do. This helps answers the question, “Where is the student currently?” To move students forward in their learning efficiently, you also have to know, “what does the progression of knowledge and skills look like for a child to reach the expectations for students by the end of the year?”  It is not that teachers cannot do this. Many do. But couldn’t we make their job easier and faster?

Progression descriptors describe where students are in their learning and how students likely learn. Progression-based tasks show teachers what assignments look like that elicit student thinking representative of a stage of development. Exemplar student work of each stage shows us the evidence of what students can do when they are in a particular stage. Student work helps teachers recognize when one student is more advanced in their thinking than another. Together these tools can support a likely pathway to inform explicit instructional actions. Short professional development videos targeting next steps aligned to each stage would also likely be supportive. Why does each teacher need to determine this independently? There is power in a team of experts also supporting suggested next steps that teachers can use or not, as they determine what is best for their own students.

3. Tools for Triangulation of Evidence

Creating direct and explicit connections among learning progressions, progression-based tasks, and authentic examples of student work from each stage of development, support teachers in quickly analyzing student work. They match student work to a stage of development. A match is not a stopping point for decision making. It is a call to administer tasks from the next stage to discover if another match can be made. This is done until a match to a stage of the progression cannot be made. This is where the student will need to begin instruction. The combination of the matches that represent more sophisticated levels of development along with data from summative or interim assessments provide the triangulation of evidence and, importantly, validation to support understanding where a child is in their learning and what the child needs next.

Interim data (or “summative” data because data can be formative or summative based on how you use it) can suggest in the beginning of the year where the teacher might want to start checking along a progression. For example, for an advanced student, teachers might want to start checking student skills in the middle, higher area of the progression moving forward or backwards to locate the child as needed. During the year, such data points intended for triangulation can confirm progress the teacher sees in the classroom or disconfirm it. Triangulation should spur inquiry when different sources of evidence of student learning do not converge. For example, sometimes, students can demonstrate more advanced skills before easier skills. This can be especially true for students with particular types of learning differences. It is important to foster the advanced thinking in such situations rather than gravitate to the novice stages.

4. Evidence-Management Systems Centered in Policy Decisions

Teachers ideally need a learning and evidence management system so that the authentic student work evidence can be stored digitally at the teacher’s fingertips and used as a reference to analyze student work for the same progression across time. Ideally, such a management system would also allow teachers to access examples from other grades quickly and easily. If a student cannot access the grade level progressions and triangulation of evidence suggests the student is early novice stage of content understanding, should the teacher be able to find learning opportunities and progressions from the next lower adjacent grade? This is an important policy decision because it likely influences how a learning and evidence management system is configured. And it influences what the teacher feels he or she has the latitude to be able to do.

States and districts might consider messaging that not all students may need instruction just in the grade level standards. Not all students may need to be measured on just what has been taught. While learning progression tasks can be administered sequentially and embedded into the curriculum, their potential efficacy is diminished with such an approach. Teachers need to be able to diagnose where students are outside of a pacing guide if we want to ensure equity of both having an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to grow. We want all students to have what they need.

  • Many teachers want prioritized standards that signal what is most important to monitor as children progress throughout the year coupled with a rough sequence of coverage.
  • Many teachers want a learning and evidence management system that help them track and measure student growth over time, easily.
  • Many teachers want to know what proficiency looks like, authentically.
  • Many teachers want standardized exemplar tasks aligned to state standards that they can use, if they want to, to help understand what standards look like in action.

Can we make their job a touch easier?


Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2004). Learning trajectories in mathematics education. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 6(2), 81–89.

Furtak, E. M., Morrison, D., & Kroog, H. (2014). Investigating the link between learning progressions and classroom assessment. Science Education, 98(4), 640–673

Heritage, M. (2008). Learning Progressions: Supporting Instruction and Formative Assessment. CCSSO. Washington, DC.

Heritage, M., Kim, J., Vendlinski, T., & Herman, J. (2009). From evidence to action: A seamless process in formative classroom assessment? Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 28(3), 24–31.

Hoover, N. R. & Abrams, L. M. (2013) Teachers’ instructional use of summative student assessment data. Applied Measurement in Education, 26(3), 219-231.

Schneider, M.C., & Andrade, H. (2013). Teachers’ and administrators’ use of evidence of student learning to take action. Applied Measurement in Education, 26(3).159–162.

Schneider, M.C. & Meyer, J.P. (2012). Investigating the efficacy of a professional development program in formative classroom assessment in middle school English language arts and mathematics. Journal of Multidisciplinary Evaluation, 8(17). 1–24.

Smith, C. L., Wiser, M., Anderson, C. W. & Krajcik, J. (2006). Implications of research on children’s learning for standards and assessment: A proposed learning progression for matter and the atomic molecular theory. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research and Perspectives, 4(1&2), 1–98.




2 responses to “Creating Support Systems for the Use of Learning Progressions”

  1. Huynh Huynh Avatar

    I am so pleased that you are writing something of practical value. And something significant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mcschneiderphd Avatar

      Thank you Hunyh! Students always value feedback from their mentor.


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