As a former classroom teacher, coach, and literacy specialist, I know the beginning of the school year demands that educators pay attention to a number of competing interests. Let me suggest one thing for teachers to focus on that, above all else, can close the student achievement gap: the rigor and quality of classroom assignments.

Digging into classroom assignments is revealing. It tells a story about curricula, instruction, achievement, and education equity. In the process, it uncovers what teachers believe about their students, what they know and understand about their standards and curricula, and what they are willing to do to advance student learning and achievement. So, when educators critically examine their own assignments (and the work students produce), they have an opportunity to gain powerful insight about teaching and learning — the kind of insight that can move the needle on student achievement. This type of analysis can identify trends across content areas such as English/language arts, science, social studies, and math.

At Ed Trust, we undertook such an analysis of 4,000 classroom assignments and found that students are being given in-school and out-of-school assignments that don’t align with grade-level standards, lack sufficient opportunities and time for writing, and include tasks that require low-level thinking and work production. We’ve seen assignments with little-to-no meaningful discussion and those with teachers over-supporting students, which effectively rob students of the kind of challenging thinking that leads to academic growth. And we’ve seen assignments where the reading looked like stop-and-go traffic, overrun with prescribed note-taking, breaking down students’ ability to build reading flow and deep learning.

These findings served as the basis for our second Equity in Motion convening. For three days this summer, educators from across the country explored the importance of regular and thoughtful assignment analysis. They found that carefully developed assignments have the power to make a curriculum last in students’ minds. They saw how assignments reveal whether students are grasping curricula, and if not, how teachers can adapt instruction. They also saw how assignments give clues into their own beliefs about students, which carry serious equity implications for all students, especially those who have been traditionally under-served. Throughout the convening, educators talked about the implications of their assignments and how assignments can affect overall achievement and address issues of equity. If assignments fall short of what standards demand, students will be ill-equipped to achieve at high levels.

The main take-away from this convening was simple but powerful: Assignments matter!

I encourage all teachers to take that message to heart. This school year, aim to make sure your assignments are more rigorous, standards-aligned, and authentically relevant to your students. Use our Literacy Analysis Assignment Guide to examine your assignments — alone, or better yet, with colleagues — to ensure you’re delivering assignments that propel your students to reach higher and achieve more. Doing this will provide a more complete picture of where your students are in their learning and how you can move them toward skill and concept mastery.

Remember this: Students can do no better than the assignments they receive.