Select relevant learning objectives in a subject area or grade level
The first step in the compacting process is choosing curricular content and learning objectives. Teachers may refer to the formal curriculum guides issued by school districts or states, or the informal guides provided by textbook publishers.
After locating the objectives, teachers must focus on those that are appropriate for their students. Oftentimes, there’s a discrepancy between the objectives noted in the curriculum guides and those actually tested by the school districts. Other objectives may be redundant or overly ambitious.
Clearly, teachers must narrow down the field of alternatives. To assist in the task, they may consider the following criteria:
- To what extent do these objectives represent new learning?
- Which objectives will best help students increase their use of this content area?
- Which objectives can be applied to the workplace?
- Which objectives deal with developing skills or concepts, as opposed to merely memorizing facts?
- Which objectives are important for high ability students to understand?
- Which objectives cannot be learned without formal or sustained instruction?
- Which objectives reflect the priorities of the school district or state department of education?
After the objectives are selected, they should be listed by priority. Because of their importance, the higher-ranked items are the ones teachers will concentrate on with the entire class, while the less relevant ones are prime candidates for compacting.
Simply having a set of learning objectives does not tell a teacher how or if these objectives can be adapted to meet students’ individual needs. Teachers must know the subject matter, as well as their students’ learning styles. Step two in the compacting process can help teachers make these evaluations.
Find an appropriate way to pretest the learning objectives
Pretesting, as its name implies, is intended to measure students’ skills and talents before instruction begins. It should provide teachers with precise information on:
- Which objectives students have already met
- Which objectives students have not yet attained
- Any problems that may prevent student progress with the objectives
Ideally, a pretest should demonstrate whether a student has full, partial, or little mastery of an objective. Objective-referenced tests can do that effectively, as they usually assess one objective at a time through short answer or multiple choice responses. On a practical level, these “paper and pencil” tests appeal to teachers because they can be administered in large group settings, require little time to oversee or correct, and are readily available from textbook publishers or testing companies allowing teachers to keep records of students’ progress.
Performance-based assessment is a popular alternative to objective-referenced tests. By asking students to do oral, written, or manipulative work in front of them, teachers can observe and evaluate the process students use to arrive at an answer. This procedure is especially successful with younger children who are not yet ready for paper and pencil tests.
Students may be evaluated individually or in small groups, through conferences, interviews, or portfolios of completed work. As with objective-referenced tests, this requires preplanning. Teachers must take the time to locate or create the performance tests, making sure that they’re aligned with the desired learning objectives.
Identify students who should take the pretests
In step three, teachers identify students who should participate in the pretesting activity. To do this, teachers must first discern students’ specific strengths.
This step is critical for two reasons. First, it ensures that when students are excused from class for enrichment activities, they’re absent only during their curricular strength times. Second, it eliminates the need to assign make-up work when the students return to the classroom.
Academic records, standardized tests, class performance and evaluations from former teachers are all effective means of pinpointing candidates for pretesting. Another method is observation. Teachers should watch for students who complete tasks quickly and accurately, finish reading assignments ahead of their peers, or seem bored or lost in daydreams. Some students will even tell their teachers that the work assigned is too easy.
Pretest students to determine mastery levels
Pretests, both formal and informal, help teachers determine student mastery of course material. But what constitutes mastery? Since definitions of mastery vary so, teachers within the same school should strive to reach a consensus.
Administering Formal Pretests
Deciding how and when to pretest students can be a time-intensive exercise. One shortcut is to increase the number of students or objectives examined at one time; for example, if a chapter in a math text covers ten objectives, a small group of students, or the entire class could be tested on all ten objectives in one sitting.
Before starting the testing process, teachers should:
- Point out that some students will already be familiar with the material.
- Ask if any students would like to “test out” of some or all of the unit by demonstrating that they already know the objectives being taught.
- Assure the students that they are not expected to be competent in all the objectives being tested.
- Tell the students that their curriculum may be streamlined if they can exhibit mastery of some or all of the objectives.
- Help the students understand that they will not be labeled “poor learners” if they can not pass one or more sections of the test.
Once students agree to the pretests, teachers can give instructions for completing them. Parts of the examination may be taken independently, reducing the amount of time teachers must serve as monitors.
If small group testing is not feasible, teachers can follow the same procedures with individual students. Some educators may want to install a permanent “testing table” for this purpose; others may let students score and record their own test results to save time.
Some teachers may want to use performance-based testing. If they choose this form of pretesting, they should observe students closely, by taking notes, tracing thought patterns, and posing open-ended questions to assess proficiency with the objectives.
Let’s assume, for example, that the assignment is to write a persuasive essay. The instructions could be to actually create and submit an essay, which teachers would read and analyze for content; teachers could also ask students how they went about organizing their thoughts, to see if they truly understand the assignment.
Similar sessions can be held to assess other abilities, such as decoding rules, solving problems, or processing science skills. Through these evaluations, many teachers will discover the value of performance-based testing as a supplement to pretesting.
An Option: Pretest All Students in the Class
Pretests may also be administered to the entire class. Although it may entail more work for the teacher, it provides the opportunity for all students to demonstrate their strength in an area. In fact, involving everyone in the process can boost individual confidence and build a stronger sense of community in the classroom. Equipped with a matrix of learning objectives, teachers can fill in the test results and form small, flexible groups based on skill needs.
Securing Help for Pretesting
There are a number of resources that teachers can use to help conduct pretests:
- Parent volunteers, aides, and tutors can lend a hand administering tests.
- Reading, math, and other curriculum specialists can assist in identifying learning objectives and student strengths.
- District consultants and teachers of gifted children may be available to help with pretests and other aspects of compacting. This service is especially vital during the first few years, when teachers are trying to organize and implement the compacting program.
- Companies are developing new computer technology to pretest and provide individual instruction to targeted students.
Streamline practice or instructional time for students who show mastery of the objectives
Students who have a thorough grasp of the learning objectives should be allowed to take part in enrichment or acceleration activities. This exposes them, during class time, to material that is not only new and stimulating, but more closely aligned to their learning rates and abilities.
For illustration purposes, let’s say that a student has mastered three out of five objectives in a given unit. It follows, then, that the student should not take part in the classroom instruction of those three objectives. Depending upon the teacher, some students may be excused from specific class sessions (for example, the Monday and Wednesday portions of vocabulary building), while others may forego certain chapters or pages in the text or specific sets of learning activities.
Provide small group or individualized instruction for students who have not yet mastered all the objectives, but are capable of doing so more quickly than their classmates
How should teachers instruct students who qualify for compacting, but have not yet mastered all the objectives? An obvious solution is to have them engage in the same lessons as their classmates. If the brighter students progress at a faster pace, teachers can condense the material through “content compacting.”
Content compacting differs from skills compacting. As the name implies, it compresses overall course material that students have already mastered, or are able to master in a fraction of the normal time. Skills compacting, on the other hand, eliminates specific skills that students have already acquired. Content compacting is also designed for general knowledge subjects—social studies, science and literature—whereas skills compacting is intended for mathematics, spelling, grammar, and language mechanics.
Skills compacting is easier to accomplish. Pretesting is a simpler process, and mastery can be documented more efficiently. Content compacting, on the other hand, is more flexible, as students can absorb the material at their own speed. In content compacting, the means of evaluation are also less formal; teachers may require an essay, an interview, or an open-ended short answer test.
Offer academic alternatives for students whose curriculum has been compacted
Alternatives often exist to provide acceleration and/or enrichment for students whose curriculum has been compacted. This step has proven to be the most challenging and the most creative for teachers. The possibilities for replacement activities include:
- Providing an accelerated curriculum based on advanced concepts
- Offering more challenging content (alternative texts, fiction or non-fiction works)
- Adapting classwork to individual curricular needs or learning styles
- Initiating individual or small group projects using contracts or management plans
- Using interest or learning centers
- Providing opportunities for self-directed learning or decision making
- Offering mini-courses on research topics or other high interest areas
- Establishing small seminar groups for advanced studies
- Using mentors to guide in learning advanced content or pursuing independent studies, or
- Providing units or assignments that are self-directed, such as creative writing, game creation, and creative and critical thinking training
Teachers will have to decide which replacement activities to use and their decisions will be based on factors such as time, space, resources, school policy, and help from other faculty (such as a gifted program teacher or a library media-specialist). While practical concerns should be considered, what should ultimately determine replacement activities are the degree of academic challenge and students’ interests. When students understand that if they demonstrate proficiency, they will earn some time to pursue their own interests, they will often work to earn this opportunity. Our role as teachers is to escalate the challenge level of the material students are pursuing to be able to provide adequate academic challenges. Many additional suggested alternatives for students are provided after Step Eight.
Keep records of the compacting process and instructional options for compacted students
Any differentiated program requires added record keeping. Unlike a regular classroom where all students are on the same page or exercise at any given time, teachers who provide a compacted curriculum have students doing different assignments at different levels and different times. Keeping concise records, then, is essential, and can be time-consuming without proper planning. Teachers and administrators should collectively decide how the compacting process should be documented. Regardless of form, all written documentation should contain these basics:
- Student strength areas, as verified by test scores or performance
- The pretests used to determine mastery, and the learning objectives that were eliminated
- Recommended enrichment and acceleration activities
The Compactor was designed expressly to track the compacting process. Teachers employed in states or provinces with mandates for gifted education can substitute the compactor form for the Individual Education Plan (IEP), thus curbing the paperwork required for state-funded services.
No matter what record keeping vehicle they use, it is critical that teachers thoroughly chronicle the compacting process. The facts and figures they compile can be used in parent-teacher conferences. They can also be included in students’ permanent academic files. The information can even help win support for compacting when the idea is being “sold,” since people tend to react more favorably to issues presented in a written format.