Published Online: May 2, 2006
Published in Print: May 4, 2006, as Monthly Checkups

Monthly Checkups

A new principal works with teachers to get the most out of a district's benchmark assessments.

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Charlotte Kreuder, in her first year as the principal of Littlejohn Elementary School here, has a track record of helping teachers make changes in instruction based on analysis of students’ test scores.

In her previous job, as the principal at Taylor Park Elementary School in Freeport, Ill., she helped teachers and students set learning goals derived from data analysis. That effort, she believes, helped the school narrow a large gap in test performance between African-American and white students and significantly raise the state-test scores of all its students.

“We got teachers wrestling with the data,” she says. “Those areas they decided to focus on, students almost inevitably did better on.”

Now Kreuder wants to accomplish something similar at Littlejohn Elementary. Here, it’s a different subgroup of students that lags behind in performance on Illinois’ standardized reading and math tests. English-language learners, who make up 19 percent of the school’s 490 pupils, aren’t doing well—and Kreuder accepted her new job partly because she wanted to help teachers turn that situation around.

As a first step, she’s building on the 4,500-student DeKalb school district’s efforts to implement a computerized testing system called the Benchmark Assessment System, which is produced by Tungsten Learning, a division of New York City-based Edison Schools Inc.

The K-5 Littlejohn Elementary is one of three schools in the DeKalb district in their second year of using the commercial online system. With the system, students in 2nd grade and up take monthly math and reading tests that are aligned with the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, given every April. Whenever Illinois makes changes in the ISAT, Tungsten Learning alters its monthly tests to reflect those changes.

Close Alignment

The roughly 20 multiple-choice questions students answer in both mathematics and reading each month are designed to test them throughout the school year on what they are supposed to know by the end of the year for their grade level. Every two months, the mini-tests cover all the standards for that grade that will be assessed on the ISAT. It takes students a total of about two hours each month to take both tests, teachers say.

The DeKalb district requires teachers to meet in grade-level teams for another two hours each month to look at students’ results in various reports and decide how to teach the standards that students are weak on. For those meetings, the district hires substitutes to take over the teachers’ classes. It also provides a facilitator for most meetings.

Principal Charlotte Kreuder believes in using data from frequent tests to help teachers narrow achievement gaps between different groups of students.
Principal Charlotte Kreuder believes in using data from frequent tests to help teachers narrow achievement gaps between different groups of students.
—Aynsley Floyd for Education Week

At Littlejohn Elementary, teachers are responding to the charge to design lessons so that students can get more of the Tungsten questions right—and ultimately do well on the ISAT or the modified version that English-language learners take.

In February, for example, many of Marty Brown’s 5th graders missed math questions on using tables, graphs, and symbols. “With the ISAT being given a couple of weeks from now, I’ll pull out some books on that,” Brown says.

In her class, the students themselves track what percentage of questions they get right on each test and fill out forms explaining what stumped them. “I forgot temporarily what an antonym was,” writes one 5th grade girl.

To the casual observer, it seems that Kreuder and other DeKalb administrators are urging Littlejohn Elementary teachers simply to “teach to the test.”

But Kreuder has a different take. Because both the ISAT and Tungsten tests are based on the Illinois standards, she says, “you’re not teaching to the test. You are teaching to what students need to know and be able to do.”

Challenges With English-Learners

Janet L. Roschmann, who teaches the bilingual section of 2nd graders at Littlejohn, says she’s torn about using the Tungsten system with her pupils, all of whom are English-language learners. “I like the experience kids get practicing that kind of testing,” she says. “I just wish it wasn’t every month.”

She says the assessments give her more specific information, such as that her students don’t know how to summarize well, than she might pick up on her own. But she wonders if the results are skewed because children get some answers right by guessing. In addition, her students easily get thrown off in test-taking by unfamiliar proper nouns or vocabulary words, she says.

In response to some teachers’ frustrations, Principal Kreuder has provided guidelines for assessing English-learners with Tungsten. She decided, for example, that students at the lowest of the school’s three levels of English proficiency don’t have to take the Tungsten reading test.

Students take the Tungsten tests online using iBook laptop computers and a wireless system. Most students like taking the tests, perhaps in part because they like using the laptops, teachers say.

But for about two months last fall, the district and company technicians couldn’t figure out how to correct a slowdown in the computer system. At that time, “the kids could have taken a vacation between questions one and two,” quips Kim L. Lyle, a 3rd grade teacher who has generally embraced the Tungsten system.

“It was a bother,” says Kreuder, adding that technical problems can really affect “teacher buy-in.”

But she’s also grateful for what the technology behind the Tungsten system provides. The computers correct the tests, and teachers can sort student results many different ways within seconds. Back in the state’s Freeport district, Kreuder manually manipulated data on her computer to produce reports for data analysis.

By Roschmann’s estimate, about half the teachers at Littlejohn Elementary are convinced that the Tungsten system is worth the effort, while Lyle estimates that 75 percent are on board.

Roschmann says she’s keeping an open mind about Kreuder’s belief that mining data can improve student achievement: “She is helping us to see the importance of the data and finding manageable ways of collecting it.”

Vol. 25, Issue 35, Pages 36-37

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