Do teachers and tutors quickly and accurately know whether their struggling learners are sufficiently benefiting from their academic program? And if the benefit is meager (or far exceeds expectations), do they adjust the ineffective program to meet the needs of struggling learners?

From the hundreds of programs I've observed over decades of evaluating struggling learners' needs and programs, the answers vary.

Sometimes teachers quickly and accurately know whether struggling learners are benefiting. Sometimes they don't. And sometimes they quickly adjust ineffective programs to match the needs of struggling learners. Sometimes they don't.

Today, in basic subjects, there's no educational justification for knowledgeable and well-supported teachers not having a fairly accurate picture of whether a program is helping struggling learners to reap substantial benefit. In the past few decades, our ability to quickly and frequently monitor learners' progress in reading, writing and mathematics has made great strides.

Many valid progress-monitoring probes take only minutes to administer, mark and chart the results, giving teachers, tutors and parents a fairly good handle on learners' weekly and monthly progress. Moreover, teaching assistants can quickly learn to administer and mark most probes, and then chart each learner's progress. With progress-monitoring software, it's even easier.

Frequently giving and marking progress-monitoring probes, and charting and analyzing the progress of learners can quickly signal if struggling learners are regressing, stagnating, making anticipated progress or extremely accelerated progress that requires more ambitious goals and challenges.

In other words, are they currently on track to achieve, fall short or exceed all their ambitious, realistic and measurable goals? If they're eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), this includes their IEP goals.

Quickly getting a fairly accurate picture of a struggling learner's progress gives teachers and tutors the information needed to make a critical decision: Should the learner's program be maintained, tweaked, substantially modified or replaced by one likely to meaningfully accelerate progress? Sometimes, answering this question requires more diagnostic information and changes to learners' IEPs. But not always.

Valid academic probes are typically based on direct and independent research (e.g., curriculum-based measurement, CBM) published in respected, peer-refereed journals. Typically, they should produce results representative of struggling learners' functioning in class.

For example, if a struggling third grader's basic problems are inaccurate word recognition and dysfluent reading, and the trend of his (or her) progress-monitoring scores indicates he now reads moderately more difficult paragraphs with substantially greater accuracy and fluency, his teacher should see this during reading instruction.

Generally, for struggling learners who receive daily reading instruction in school, staff should administer monitoring probes once weekly. Tutors should administer them after five or so hours of instruction. Monitoring and graphing the data takes little time, often 5-10 minutes.

Teaching assistants can quickly learn to do both. None of this interferes with instruction. Just the opposite. It helps assure instruction is correctly targeted.

If the learner's last four probe scores show regression, stagnation or insufficient progress, knowledgeable investigation needs to identify the current barriers to progress. Once identified, the program should be adjusted or, in extreme cases, a new one substituted.

Professor Erica Lembke of the University of Missouri provides a wealth of specific guidance. For example:

"If three weeks of instruction have occurred and at least six [data] points have been collected, examine the four most recent data points. If all four are above [the] goal line [the student's anticipated progress to attain a specific goal], increase the goal. If all four are below [the] goal line, make a teaching change. If the four data points are both above and below the goal line, keep collecting data until [the] four-point rule can be applied."

Often, small adjustments can markedly accelerate progress. These might include changes in seating, in instructional and independent level materials, in reinforcers and reinforcement schedules, and in daily schedules of subjects. Adjusted schedules should help learners function with substantial energy, alertness and motivation.

After any change, progress monitoring should continue, as changes are educated guesses about what will work. If these guesses are well targeted on the struggling learners' needs, and programs are well designed and implemented, they should minimize or prevent wasted time.

This is critical. Why? Because struggling learners are usually so far behind that every moment of justifiably-targeted, well-designed instruction improves their chances of success. Missed moments add up. And poorly targeted, poorly designed programs relentlessly erode optimism, motivation and opportunity.

Infrequent or invalid progress monitoring, the kind that depends on memories of data and anecdotes and impressions of progress, often keep struggling learners in failing programs — for years. Rarely is this due to "indifferent, incompetent teachers." Most are caring, competent and committed to children's welfare. It’s often due to lack of knowledge, frailties of human memory, inadequate support for teachers and students, and the overwhelming time pressures that teachers face.

Nevertheless, for struggling learners, valid, frequent and ongoing progress monitoring is essential — it's not a luxury. It's something that should play a prominent role in IEPs, but will rarely do so unless parents insist. In line with this, IDEA states that schools:

"Must ensure that ... the IEP team .... reviews the child's IEP periodically, but not less than annually, to determine whether the annual goals for the child are being achieved; and revises the IEP, as appropriate, to address any lack of expected progress toward the annual goals and in the general education curriculum, if appropriate."

Without valid, frequent and impartial progress monitoring, I don't see how schools can accurately and validly meet this requirement in ways that don't subject innumerable struggling learners to programs that cause regression, stagnation and pessimism.

How are we helping struggling learners if we keep them in programs that fail them and extend their struggles? How are we helping them if we wait until the last months of school to learn that their reading, writing or math program has failed them? Clearly, ignoring the need for frequent progress monitoring defeats IDEA's first purpose:

"To ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education .... designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living."

To me, this requires far more than perfunctory compliance. It underscores that special educators have a lasting ethical and moral obligation to children with disabilities. Valid progress monitoring something special educators lacked decades ago can now help them meet their ethical and moral obligations to all children who struggle with learning.

Before dismissing the need for progress monitoring, ask yourself two questions:

  • How successful do you think medical treatment for severe chest pain would prove if the hospital's medical staff fails to monitor patients' vital signs, such as temperature, blood pressure and cardiac cycle?
  • Would you book a flight on a jet whose pilot had frequent citations for rarely checking his fuel, altitude, engine status and navigation panels?

So, is progress monitoring a waste of time?

By now, my opinion must be crystal clear. Progress monitoring isn't a waste of time. Failure to frequently monitor progress is. It often keeps struggling learners in ineffective programs, wasting time, opportunity and hope. Often, it perpetuates unnecessary, emotionally-damaging struggles.

Is the damage irreversible? If it involves years of severe, unnecessary struggles, years of emotional agony, it may well be.