The Effect of Frames with Embedded Semantic Prompts on Closing the Achievement Gap in Students’ Knowledge of History
Many educators believe that a major goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is closing the achievement gap between low- and typical achieving students. One of the strategies for attaining this goal has been to require teachers to become “highly qualified” (HQ) to teach in specific subject-areas. HQ requirements, use of high-stakes tests, and political priorities of this age have resulted in an emphasis on (a) including students with disabilities in general education core subject-area classes and (b) teaching all students grade-level standards.
Historically, educators have advocated use of instructional accommodations and curriculum modifications as a means for enabling students with disabilities to access the general education curriculum. In other words, the traditional practice has been to focus on differences in students’ learning abilities and to treat individual students differently in accordance with their individual needs. Unfortunately, secondary teachers tend to have large numbers of students on their rolls (e.g.,150+ students), so providing differentiated instruction in an effective manner in accordance with individual student needs has proven very difficult due to limitations of teachers’ time, energy, expertise, and opportunity.
More recently, educators have emphasized the importance of using universal instructional techniques (Deshler, etc.) that are powerful enough to enable students with learning problems to master learning standards, but are also effective and appropriate for use with all students, not just those with learning problems. This study examined learning gaps between 32 high-achieving students, 32 typical-achieving students as well on 16 students classified as LD when traditional and non-traditional instructional techniques are employed. The study compared the impact of using Essential Understanding Smart-sheets (EUSS) vs. guided-note taking via outlines (GNO) on the attainment of social studies knowledge in general education high school classes.
EUSS are visual frames containing embedded semantic prompts designed to (a) focus attention on what is essential to understand about each of 15 different commonly taught social studies topics, and (b) prompt student engagement in use of specific information processing strategies.
The study employed a reversal design to control for interaction effects between use of EUSS and
GNO instructional approaches. During Phase 1 and Phase 3 of the study, two HQ-social studies teachers employed GNO when teaching history mini-units, and two other teachers used EUSS. During Phase 2 and 4, the first two teachers employed EUSS and the other two used GNO.
Before-and-after instruction measures of historical knowledge were attained by comparing evidence of students’ knowledge to pre-established criterion maps (Ruiz-Primo, Shavelson & Shultz, 1997). Students orally explained links between the terms and were asked to elaborate on concepts relating to the proposition identified. Students were provided three types of prompts to encourage elaboration:
- Prompts to summarize important ideas about the topic
- Prompts to relate or apply ideas
- Prompts to think about the idea in a new way (what if…)
Each Proposition received a Proposition Score (0-3), depending on whether the proposition appeared on the criterion map, whether the student’s explanation was accurate, factually correct and complete, and degree of elaboration provided.
Figure 1 illustrates the relative gaps in attainment of new knowledge of history when teachers use GNO. It shows that, predictably, students who are high achieving learn 21% more information than do those who are typical achieving. Likewise, students who are classified as LD earn to learn 27% less than typical achieving students under the same conditions.
Figure 2 illustrates the relative gaps in attainment of new knowledge of history when teachers use EUSS. It shows that when EUSS is used, typical achievers acquire 96% of the new knowledge that high achievers acquire when traditional instruction is used. When EUSS is used, students with LD acquire 89% of the new knowledge that typical achievers acquire when traditional instruction is used.
These data validate use EUSS as a form of universal instruction beneficial to all students. Paradoxically, they also demonstrate the oxymoronic notion of closing the achievement gap between typical achieving students and those with learning disabilities. Although EUSS proved to be far superior to GNO for both students who are typical achieving and those with LD, its application resulted in a widening rather than closing of the achievement gap. Because achievement of all students significantly increased with EUSS, its use raises the bar for all, but it does not close the achievement gap (see Figure 3)
The study illustrates that closing the gap between low- and typical achievers should not be a goal. Rather, the focus should be on closing the gap between what students with LD traditionally learn and attainment of grade level standards. Comparing their progress to that of other groups of students makes little sense.