Why Tracking Student Progress Is Critical to Solving the Achievement Gap: 6 Questions for District Leaders

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By: Meg Bowen


The undisputed power – and rarity – of formative assessment

Tracking student progress through formative assessment is an incredibly effective tool for accelerating learning and engaging students in monitoring their own progress. Research support for these methods is well-documented. A couple of examples include:

    • The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) cited more than three decades of research in their position statement indicating formative assessment is highly effective at increasing student learning (2013).
    • Furthermore, the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) released a position statement citing formative assessment expert Dr. Susan Brookhart’s research on the power of involving students in monitoring their own progress, which results in increased autonomy and the ability to accurately predict their performance (2016).

While the benefits are widely accepted, the actual practice of formative assessment is not widespread. Many districts struggle to get their teachers to fully embrace it and utilize the full power of tracking student progress.

According to classroom walkthrough data collected between 2018 and 2020 and analyzed by Learning Sciences International (LSI)’s Applied Research Center, only 6% of classrooms have teachers tracking evidence of students meeting the lesson learning target – see figure 1 (Learning Sciences International Applied Research Center, 2020).

Figure 1. In 94% of classrooms, teachers did not track evidence of students meeting the learning target.


As education leaders reflect on how to effectively track student progress, harness the full power of formative assessment, and ultimately solve achievement gaps in their own district, below are 6 questions to consider.

 While the benefits are widely accepted, the actual practice of formative assessment is not widespread.

1. Why isn’t everyone engaging in formative assessment?

With the benefits of formative assessment and students tracking their own progress so widely accepted, district leaders often struggle to understand why it’s so challenging for teachers to make formative assessment a natural part of their instructional practice.

Ask any teacher about formative assessment and you may be surprised to hear a response of, “I already do that.” Many teachers have embraced exit tickets as their “go to” formative assessment, but just as the name implies, those tickets provide the teacher with information only after the student has exited the lesson, when it’s too late to address misconceptions that occurred along the way. As this blog points out using a checklist based on criteria from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), exit tickets miss the full power of formative assessment.

The real culprits that impact teachers’ ability to effectively design and implement formative assessment and track student progress include limited planning time, lack of tools and resources for creating formative assessments, and misconceptions about the differences between formative and summative assessments.



2. How do most teachers currently track students’ progress?

If formative assessment is not part of the instructional routine, how are teachers tracking students’ progress? Often, teachers rely on summative measures such as unit tests or external assessments provided by third-party vendors.

While these types of assessments may give district leaders visibility into how schools are performing in general, both of these practices eliminate the most beneficial aspect of formative assessment: allowing the teacher to adjust instruction or provide in-the-moment support while instruction is still happening before students’ misconceptions become entrenched and lead to achievement gaps.


Student Evidence Tracker

Getting Students to Self-Assess for Effective Formative Assessment

View Demo


3. What happens when students self-assess?

Including students in the formative assessment process yields even greater results than teacher-led formative assessment, according to research cited by Dr. Susan Brookhart in her blog post, Address Learning Loss: Classroom Formative Assessment Tools Aid in Remote Learning.

When students are involved in self-assessing their learning against clear criteria, engagement increases, agency is developed, and learning is accelerated.

Having evidence-based practices in place for effective formative assessment will directly and positively impact student achievement on the more formal summative measures for which districts are held accountable.

A solution that engages students while providing critical real-time data

While most formative assessment methods and tools are teacher-led, an example of a tool that gives students an active role and allows districts to experience the full power of formative assessment is LSI’s Student Evidence Tracker .

Student Evidence Tracker is an easy-to-use tech tool and checks all the boxes of the CCSSO-based checklist for effective formative assessment while avoiding adding one more thing to teachers’ already full plates. Students quickly embrace the web-based app’s intuitive interface, allowing them to focus on learning rather than on the tool itself (see figure 2).

Learning Target

Figure 2. An example of what students see in Student Evidence Tracker’s simple platform – they can check off criterion as they work toward the lesson’s learning target. Students can also raise their hand to request assistance.




4. Why is it important that students can accurately predict their performance on tasks and assessments?

Student Self Tracking

When students can correctly identify which skills or concepts they have mastered and which ones need further development, they are able to focus their attention and efforts on those key skills or concepts that require additional practice or instruction.

While this may sound like common sense, the disconnect between what students think they know and what summative assessments indicate they have actually mastered can be vast and has tremendous consequences for districts.

Evidence of this disconnect can be seen in a variety of ways, from students who receive high marks on report cards but then score unexpectedly low on state assessments to students who underperform on unit tests despite feeling they were well prepared and understood the material being assessed.



5. How often should you progress monitor?

As noted, the key to achieving great results on summative assessments is having a solid system in place for tracking student progress along the way, as students are learning.

In order to prevent daily learning gaps from growing into achievement gaps over time, it’s critical for teachers and students to monitor progress during every lesson. This requires a shift in thinking from assuming tracking student progress means testing to understanding that it can happen in very authentic ways as part of instruction.

While students are engaged in learning tasks, they can measure their own progress against clear criteria provided by the teacher, indicating when they have evidence of mastery. The teacher can then verify students’ self-assessment, providing feedback in the moment that either confirms the student self-assessed accurately or explaining what else is needed to demonstrate mastery.

The tracking, verification, and feedback process is easily accomplished with Student Evidence Tracker. The teacher simply reviews students’ self-assessments and clicks a star icon to verify the student has met the criterion or selects an “x” to alert the student that the criterion was not yet met (see figure 3). Students see the feedback in real-time as their check mark is replaced by a star or reset, and the teacher can follow up with comments or a discussion so students can revise their work.

Figure 3. In the Student Evidence Tracker tool, the teacher can click the blue star symbol to accept a student’s self-assessment of whether they achieved the lesson’s learning target. Or, the teacher can click the red X symbol if there is not sufficient evidence, and the student can try again. The teacher can also see if students have raised their hands to request assistance.

With Student Evidence Tracker, school and district leaders are able to easily track progress of schools, grade levels, and even specific students in terms of mastering learning targets through automatically generated reports (see figure 4). This visibility allows district and school leaders to intervene, offering targeted support to teachers so that students are on track for success long before student progress is measured by high-stakes testing.

Figure 4. An example of a report in the Student Evidence Tracker, that shows trends in student achievement of learning targets as well as trends within each learning target.


6. Why is making the shift to formative assessment critical to recovering from pandemic-induced learning losses?

District leaders may be thinking this isn’t the right time to begin implementing effective formative assessment practices, with so much on everyone’s plate and safety being the top priority as a result of the pandemic.

In fact, this is the most critical time because if nothing is done, learning losses that occurred during the spring will become even greater and long-term achievement gaps will be harder to close as districts continue operating in virtual and hybrid learning environments.

Teachers had several tools at their disposal to monitor progress when students were in brick and mortar settings, but most of those tools and strategies have not translated well to the virtual or hybrid classroom. Most teachers interviewed by LSI’s Applied Research Center candidly admitted they were unsure how to monitor learning in virtual and hybrid settings.

This finding should be of paramount concern to district leaders who are accountable for student achievement. Fortunately, Student Evidence Tracker offers a simple and affordable solution to this critical area of need.


Student Evidence Tracker

Getting Students to Self-Assess for Effective Formative Assessment

View Demo


Districts achieve results when students self-assess and track their own learning

When students engage in self-assessment and track their own progress, they learn more quickly, develop self-regulation skills, and are more invested in lessons.

As noted by Dr. Brookhart in her recent blog post, formative assessment also addresses a number of specific issues associated with distance learning, such as students approaching assignments as a list of “to do’s” rather than meaningful learning experiences.

When students understand what they are expected to learn and how they will demonstrate mastery, tracking student progress and closing learning gaps becomes easier, and everyone wins.






Brookhart, S. (2020, October 23). Address learning loss: Classroom formative assessment tools aid in remote learning. Learning Sciences International. https://www.learningsciences.com/blog/classroom-formative-assessment-tools-address-learning-loss/

Learning Sciences International Applied Research Center (2020). Walkthrough data from 1378 classrooms [Unpublished]. Learning Sciences International.

Northwest Evaluation Association. (2016). 4 formative assessment practices that make a difference in classrooms. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED567811.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. (2013). Formative assessment that truly informs instruction. https://ncte.org/statement/formative-assessment/



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