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District's 'Data Literacy' Campaign Zeroes In on Students' Written Work

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When most people hear the term "assessment data," they are likely to think of columns of numbers and jagged trend lines output by standardized-testing programs. But one school district in southwestern Oregon is making a concerted effort to ensure the data its teachers collect and analyze prominently include samples of students' discursive writing.

A little more than three years ago, instructional leaders in the 7,500-student Oregon City school district began to have concerns that, with all the attention on improving students' reading and math scores, writing instruction was being given short shrift in classrooms, according to Carol Sanders, the district's director of school improvement. Their apprehensions were heightened when the state suspended the writing section of its standardized test, the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

"It became a priority for us to make sure we didn't lose the focus on writing even though the accountability factor was no longer there," Sanders recalled. Maintaining an emphasis on writing was especially important to the district, she added, because "writing adds rigor to reading."

So the district decided, in effect, to create its own internal accountability mechanism by working with teachers to "capture data around writing starting at kindergarten," Sanders explained.

The process began with a training program for select teacher leaders in grades K-2 that delved into the traits and stages of effective writing (as delineated in the state's standards) and the development of corresponding formative assessments and scoring rubrics. These teacher leaders then facilitated cross-district, grade-level teacher teams to explore assessment models and create a consistent approach to scoring across classrooms.

'Real-Time' Data

The program, which has been highlighted by the Washington-based nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, has since expanded to kindergarten through 5th grade, with 6th grade expected to come next year. Teachers involved now meet regularly in school-based grade-level teams to analyze and score students' writing and refine their assessments, which range from quick-hit writing prompts given weekly to more formal written exams administered twice a term. They use the assessment results to re-calibrate their instruction and guide their work with individual students.

Sanders said the state's decision to discontinue the standardized exam in writing was ultimately "freeing" to the Oregon City educators because it gave them a chance "to discuss and zero in on what we really wanted to assess and [to] get the information that teachers really need."

She added that teachers have grown more adept and efficient in their use of assessments, assigning shorter pieces of writing, for example, to get "real time" data on discrete traits or skills. Since the scoring methodology is consistent across classrooms, district leaders are also better able to target support to teachers whose students may be struggling.

Allison Haycraft, a kindergarten teacher at John McLaughlin Elementary School with 10 years of experience, said the program has helped her vastly improve the quality of writing students do in her classroom. "Before, I wouldn't have even asked students to write," she said. "We would work on letter recognition and transitions to writing. But now I have kids writing multiple sentences."

Never Enough Time

Haycraft credits the district's formative-assessment initiative with having raised expectations around writing (including among parents) and making it easier for her to pinpoint where students need extra help. Analyzing the data in collaboration with the other kindergarten teacher in her school also gives her a chance to compare instructional methods and refine her technique.

Alysia Warner, a 1st grade teacher at John McLaughlin, said her instruction has also undergone a change. "The formative-assessment process has encouraged me to focus on the sub-skills that the writer needs. It has helped me look the each individual writer and the needs of that specific writer," she said in an email.

At the same time, Warner said the initiative has magnified the time constraints she faces as a teacher. "My biggest challenge is finding time to create formative assessments for writing and other subjects," she said. "I also think I need more professional development on how to create formative assessments specific to subject areas such as writing."

Sanders, too, acknowledged that the relative lack of non-instructional time given to teachers has posed a barrier to realizing the potential of the program. Teachers in Oregon City meet in grade-level professional-learning teams every Wednesday afternoon and have a handful of additional in-service days set aside throughout each term (though some of those have been gobbled up by furlough days this year). Sanders believes that's not nearly enough. "Teachers need time to create assessments and time to score assessments," she said. "Clearly, we do not provide enough time for teachers to go deeply into this work and we need to."

Common-Core Considerations

Leslie Laud, a school literacy consultant and the author of Using Formative Assessment to Differentiate Middle School Literacy Instruction, said that—despite the time pressures—writing-instruction programs like the one in Oregon City are "not common enough" in U.S. schools.

"Even though the common core is bringing writing more to the forefront, recent research studies suggest that evidence-based instructional practices in writing are not [regularly] happening yet," she said.

Asked about best practices, Laud, who was not involved in the Oregon City initiative, said that, in general, formative-assessment systems in writing should attempt to build students' skills incrementally, starting with "bite size" pieces before integrating multiple standards or cross-genre composition. At the same time, she noted that, in light of the Common Core State Standards' emphasis on close reading, teachers should be incorporating more primary sources into their writing-assessment prompts. That way, students can gain experience in citing textual evidence in their writing or drawing on stylistic models—skills that are expected to be tested in the common-core aligned assessments now being developed by the state consortia.

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Laud added that it is also critical to give students themselves opportunities to assess their own writing—through conferences, think-alouds, or self-scoring activities. "It's not enough to just know where your students are weak or strong—teachers need to bring them into the assessment, motivating and moving them to improve," she said.

For its part, the Oregon City district is now looking to take its writing-assessment program to the "next level," Sanders said. She noted that teachers in the district are currently working on aligning their instructional and assessment practices in writing to the common standards, even as they await a writing-performance rubric from Smarter Balanced, the common-core assessment consortium to which Oregon belongs.

Select teachers and administrators are also slated to be enrolled in an intensive professional-development program on creating uniform, cross-district formative assessments—an effort the district believes will create greater instructional consistency and collaborative potential.

Sanders emphasized the teachers' work on developing and analyzing writing assessments has helped expand the district's definition of "data literacy" beyond the use of test data provided by the state.

"We believe the power of teacher-created assessments will give us the leverage to close the achievement gaps in writing and hopefully in reading since they are so linked," she said.

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