A teacher looks on as a student logins into i-Ready
Reading Time: 7 minutes

In the Beginning (2013–2019)

I first came to Dubai in 2013. I had been hired that year by a company known for what has since become the preeminent external assessment for American curriculum schools in the UAE. My arrival in the region could not have come at a better time. Schools were just beginning to move away from fixed-form, paper-and-pencil assessments and toward computer-based testing. That test my company provided was also adaptive and was perceived as cutting-edge and precisely the kind of solution befitting schools in the rapidly evolving education space that was the UAE at the time.

In just a few short years, the Ministry of Education and its key agencies (i.e., KHDA, Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge, Sharjar Private Education Authority) established themselves as vanguards of what KG–12 education could or should look like for the entire Gulf Cooperation Council, if not the world. Key innovations such as the National Agenda Parameter, the establishment of charter school networks and the Exceptional Student Education program, initiatives designed to improve the futures of all students, with renewed and special emphases on Emirati children and children of determination, and even an ever-evolving Inspections Framework, all affirmed a deepened understanding of and reliance upon quality data to inform instruction as much as strategic planning.  

Like the astoundingly rapid development of the country itself, what has happened in the span of a few short years can be described as breathtaking. There is a sense of urgency throughout the entire region, but particularly in the UAE, driven by a vision to make the country a global force for educational excellence.

Personally, while I still miss the baby grand piano and acoustic guitar at the KHDA offices, I do appreciate the new and improved collaborative spaces, an increased premium on customer service, and heightened accountability for schools and families alike. Everything, it seems, very much depends on the success of efforts being made right now.

I sense that I am not alone in believing that such a palpable drive for excellence is what draws and keeps educators in the UAE—a sense of purpose and possibility that is hard to come by in the educational systems many of us come from. And for this, I am grateful. Indeed, it is what drove me back here.

Wait . . . What Just Happened? (2019–2024)

The short answer: Two big, conjoined changes took place. Sure, you might be tempted to say, “The global pandemic,” and you would not be entirely incorrect. But there was something else embedded within the trigger event, which was the pandemic that bears importance to international and charter schools throughout our region.

Globally, and in general, the pandemic and an attendant lockdown radically altered teaching and learning as much as they altered our collective appreciation for the work teachers do. Beyond that, and for many of us, the lockdown was a time of self- and systemic reflection.

For me, I decided to continue my career elsewhere, accepting a promotion to work with school leaders from large, urban school districts in the United States. It was during this time (i.e., 2020–2023) that I saw the connection between what I believe to be the two most significant changes.

Big Change 1: A New Norm(al)

The pandemic’s consequences are still very much with us today across the United States as throughout most of the world. Studies across the globe reveal significant post-pandemic learning loss alongside sharp decreases in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores and other external, international measures. How bad is it? Confounding enough that Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Secretary-General Mathias Cormann openly speculated that the unprecedented, steep declines in PISA scores could be attributed to 15-year-olds spending too much time playing on their mobile devices.

Whatever else, this much we now know: There has been a significant, normative shift in student achievement. Below-grade level performance is now the new norm(al).

Norms have shifted. Students achieving the same scale score in 2024 as students in years prior will now receive a higher percentile rank. This means more students are performing lower than in previous years. 

By way of background, my previous company last released updated norms in 2020, using data from the 2015–2018 school years. My current company, on the other hand, is the first and only assessment provider to produce post-pandemic norms. The new norms are based on a sample of more than 11 million students who took the i-Ready Diagnostic during the 2022–2023 academic year.

These new norms reflect the realities explained in the State of Student Learning, published by the Curriculum Associates Research team in 2022 and 2023. This research provides a detailed portrait of Grades K–8 student performance in reading and mathematics. The pattern uncovered largely what educators learned from the National Assessment of Educational Progress data in the Nation’s Report Card in 2022, as well as recent research into the stalled post-pandemic recovery from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

Here is an example of the shift as seen from the Grade 5 mathematics results:

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The new norms reflect the pattern seen in recent research—that large numbers of students are still recovering from interruptions to their learning, and fewer students are performing on grade level. This trend is seen across Grades K–8 and persists in both reading and mathematics. In general, future norms tend to be lower than current norms for both reading and mathematics. Students can earn the same percentile rank in 2024 yet receive a lower scale score on the i-Ready Diagnostic. This is true in both reading and mathematics, though the discrepancy in mathematics is much more pronounced.

This means that instructional decisions and school inspections will be affected.

In the UAE, percentile ranks are used to determine achievement and progress. The 2024 percentile ranks may not have the same meaning as those from 2019. This is because student performance has changed. For example, students in the 50th percentile in 2024 may not have the same set of knowledge and skills as students in previous, pre-pandemic years. Bottom line: Outdated norms will create a skewed, inaccurate understanding of student performance.

Big Change 2: A Profound Shift in How We View Literacy and the Teaching of Reading

Seemingly in tandem with—or via the host of studies on pandemic learning loss—a new battle emerged in what is described as “the reading wars” throughout the United States. The battle pitted proponents of what can generally be referred to as “balanced literacy” versus advocates of systematic, foundational approaches informed by what is known as the “Science of Reading.”

The Science of Reading is a large, international body of experimental, quasi-experimental, and peer-reviewed research. This research emerged from cognitive and neuroscience linguistics, developmental psychology, and literacy experts over the last several decades. The collective findings point to the following:

  • We must systematically teach children to read just as we would any other learned skill.
  • Phonological awareness teaches students how words are broken into sounds. Learning the sounds in words and phonemes and then mapping those sounds to graphemes is vital for students learning to read.
  • Phonics instruction must be explicit and systematic enough to develop automaticity.
  • Students should practice reading words in connected texts that enable them to apply recently acquired phonics skills.

In brief, popular literacy programs across the UAE, namely Units of Study for Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins and Leveled Literacy Intervention by Fountas and Pinnell, largely ignore what the Science of Reading has strongly shown to work. These balanced literacy approaches pay minimal attention to phonics and rely too much on cueing, context clues, and other ineffective methods. Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong—an award-winning podcast by an investigative journalist—effectively and almost overnight won the battle for Science of Reading advocates. Although the change was years in the making, it has only now taken root across classrooms throughout the United States. It is only a matter of time before the same takes place in the UAE.

Taken together, these two big changes strongly suggest that:

  1. The Science of Reading must be better understood and fully applied in any literacy program. This is particularly important for the literacy needs of Emirati and English as an Additional Language students.
  • Criterion-referenced data is more important than ever. Normative data, while useful for research purposes, simply cannot inform instruction as fully as criterion-referenced data can. Norms compare students to other students. With a criterion-referenced assessment, teachers and students get grade- and domain-level placements alongside percentile ranks. This information is even more vital given what the new norm(al) is telling us.
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So, Now What? (2024–?)

That’s the question I often ask myself when encountering one of Abu Dhabi’s infernal roundabouts. I am certain that roundabouts are well-intentioned by design and purpose. However, roundabouts, like many an initiative—be it regulatory or instructional—can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction or take us on a circuitous route instead of moving us most directly to where we need to go.

And where do we need to go? I would argue to a future where assessment is invisible. By this, I mean testing as we know it becomes obsolete, and a more formative, adaptive, and personalized approach becomes the norm (no pun fully intended). Imagine a test that is a natural part or extension of what happens in any given classroom—one that provides real-time instructional support to students and teachers.

As I write this, companies such as Dublin-based SoapBox Labs are developing AI that is capable of truly personalizing and revolutionizing assessments to the point of rendering them invisible, woven into the daily life of classrooms.

But before such a future can be fully realized, we must truly come to understand and experience the power of assessment seamlessly integrated with instruction. Patchwork, or what I call “FrankenRIT,” approaches no longer suffice. Linking an assessment based on an outdated normative measure with another company’s external system purporting to provide a digital learning path is akin to a poorly designed roundabout—well-intentioned but, ultimately, a misguided waste of student and teacher time.

Given all that is at stake, coherence must come before convenience. The past and the present have indeed spoken: the future of assessment is invisible.