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Published in Print: March 1, 2006, as Tracking Devices

Tracking Devices

The First State was among the earliest to encourage students and teachers alike to keep close tabs on their academic performance.

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If you want to understand Delaware’s success in raising achievement over the past decade or so, you might ask educators or policymakers what the state has done right, study official reports, or sift through news accounts. Or you could visit Lulu M. Ross Elementary School in Milford and read the writing on the wall.

The Standards Movement:
A Progress Report
Tracking Devices (Delaware)
Go Your Own Way (Iowa)
Boom or Bust (Nevada)

Educators at the 620-student school have plastered charts tracking its educational progress to a wall in the main lobby. Among other statistics, the charts illustrate the percentages of 3rd and 5th graders passing state math and reading tests and document the narrowing academic gaps between lower-achieving African American and Hispanic students and their white peers.

For teachers and pupils alike, the wall is an ever-present reminder of the school’s focus on improved teaching and learning. It’s also emblematic of Delaware’s longstanding drive to raise instructional quality. In 1992, the First State was among the first states to adopt teaching standards in key academic subjects, craft tests aligned closely with those standards, and create sticks and carrots to ensure that schools use them. By the end of the decade, Delaware had compiled the resulting data in a computer system that principals use to pinpoint instructional weaknesses and guide their schools’ improvement efforts.

These efforts seem to have borne fruit. On national tests in reading, Delaware moved from the lower tier of states in 1992 to well above the national average in 2005. At the elementary school level, the state chalked up the nation’s highest reading gains over that same period, and the EPE Research Center’s analysis shows that minorities and formerly low-achieving students account for much of that growth.

In reading, Delaware moved from the lower tier of states in 1992 to well above the national average in 2005.

Milford, a town of nearly 7,000 that stands between the state’s more populous northern region and the farms and beach towns of southern Delaware, offers a case in point. Gains there have coincided with schools becoming increasingly diverse in their economic, ethnic, and racial makeups. Located on the banks of the Mispillion River and once a thriving shipbuilding center, Milford has drawn a growing number of poor and minority families—mostly Hispanic—seeking work in the poultry- and seafood-processing industries.

As in other Delaware districts, Milford educators are strongly encouraged to take the new standards seriously. Superintendent Robert Smith says his district provides teachers with detailed guidance on what their students have to master and administers formative assessments four times a year to help them detect and quickly remedy any instructional weaknesses.

At Smith’s urging, Ross and a handful of other district elementary schools also adopted a “total quality management” strategy in 1998. As part of the program, teachers and students set educational goals and then measure their progress, using charts and graphs similar to those on the school’s data wall. Students also keep notebooks with their own grades and charts. “It’s really helped us focus on student learning,” says Sylvia Henderson, Ross Elementary’s principal.

Since adopting the strategy, the school has seen increases of 15 percentage points to 30 percentage points on state tests in reading, writing, and math in the 3rd and 5th grades. But educators flag a downside to progress: no more time for Thanksgiving plays, no movie rewards for good behavior, no assemblies that aren’t directly tied to the curriculum, and few enrichment activities during regular school hours.

“Yes, it’s fun and exciting to learn new things,” Henderson says. “But I think of my 4-year-old daughter, and I wonder, Is she going to be well-rounded, or is she going to have all drill and practice?”

Vol. 17, Issue 05, Pages 18-19

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