Special Report
School & District Management

District Initiative

By Rhea R. Borja — May 02, 2006 9 min read
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Taking a page from the business world, a growing number of school districts are starting to use computerized tools for the analysis, management, and warehousing of data both to measure and improve student learning.

Feature Stories
Delving Into Data
District Initiative

Aware of All Students

Finding the Funding

Voices of Experience

Monthly Checkups

Tip of Their Fingers

Rising to a Challenge

Risk & Reward
‘National Effort’
State Analysis
Executive Summary
Table of Contents

Much as their counterparts in retail and finance companies analyze quarterly revenue numbers, educators in those districts pore over results from state, district, and formative assessments, as well as demographic and other digitized data, to get a clearer picture of academic progress. The goal is to use the information to adjust classroom instruction and to allocate resources more effectively to bolster learning.

Consider the Poway Unified School District. Over the past few years, the 33,000-student district here in California’s northern San Diego County has put in place a customized Web-enabled data system, paired with a benchmark-assessment tool. It has enough bells and whistles to satisfy the number-crunchers in the central office, but is user-friendly enough for teachers.

The online data system allows a group of 3rd grade teachers, for example, to scrutinize how their pupils did on benchmark assessments given three times a year and craft a team-teaching plan to provide targeted instruction in specific areas, such as vocabulary development and literal comprehension.

The system also lets a high school principal see at a glance the percentage of students—grouped by teacher—who met overall proficiency on the state’s standardized test on world history in categories such as the causes and effects of World War I and the development of modern political thought.

And beginning this summer, it will enable district administrators to view a “dashboard” of data on their computer screens showing the progress of Poway’s 35 schools toward the district’s seven academic targets, such as a 100 percent passing rate on the California high school exit exam and increasing staff diversity.

“They do this in business all the time,” says John P. Collins, Poway’s deputy superintendent. “Now we can leverage this tool for educational purposes.”

‘No Excuses’

Flags of the University of Southern California, California State University-Long Beach, and other colleges snap crisply in the winter breeze near the doorways of tan portable classrooms at Poway’s Los Penasquitos Elementary School.

Los Pen, as it’s affectionately called, qualifies for schoolwide aid from the federal Title I program because 40 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price school meals. And 31 percent of its students are English-language learners.

Teachers at Shoal Creek Elementary School in Poway, Calif., work on plans for team-teaching students based on the analysis of testing data.

Yet the school’s score on California’s Academic Performance Index is 882, well over the state’s target goal of 800, out of a possible 1,000—a score that rivals those of other schools in this largely high-performing, affluent district.

In explaining that performance, officials cite the school’s “No Excuses University” initiative to promote college-going among students, as well as Los Pen’s academy for 3rd through 5th graders, a rigorous extended-day program that has a waiting list of more than 100 students from across the district.

They also cite the insights provided from student data and how teachers use that information to drive classroom instruction.

Inside one portable classroom on a mild February day, teacher Laura D’Acquisto dims the lights. She shows her 3rd graders where they need to improve on the language arts tests that the students take every trimester. Poway uses online, adaptive benchmark tests from the Lake Oswego, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.

The teacher points to numbers magnified on a projection screen. Earlier, she had printed them out from the district’s Total Information Management system, a student-information and assessment database that’s connected to the district’s data warehouse, the foundation of Poway’s digitized data system.

Her students show solid improvement between fall and winter in grammar and mechanics as well as applications and genres of writing, with point gains in those three categories ranging from 6.3 to 7.1.

But their score on writing strategies is different. While they didn’t lose ground, the 3rd graders improved by less than half as much, only 3.1 points, from 205.2 to 208.3. Based on the data and the content knowledge and skills required in each category, D’Acquisto knows exactly where her students stumbled. And so do the children, who know what skills are required of them.

“Turn to your partner,” D’Acquisto says to the class, “to see what the best writing strategy is to work on.”

Immediately, the room buzzes with conversation. D’Aquisto walks over to her computer and the students follow, sitting in a ragged semicircle around her.

Taking some suggestions from the class, she types on her computer the “specific learning needed” to improve their scores. The ideas include strategies such as using appropriate vocabulary, finding relevant sources for information, and outlining their stories. The children nod in understanding.

Damen Lopez, Los Pen’s energetic principal, says it’s important for students to know what their test scores are and the specific steps to raise them. That strategy has worked, he says. Six years ago, Los Pen was known as a thorn among roses. The school regularly reported dismal test scores, and teachers did not expect much of their students, Lopez says. That has changed, in part because of data.

Low-Tech Training

The vast majority of public schools in the nation rely on face-to-face methods to deliver their professional development. About one-third of schools use some form of technology-based method as a training vehicle.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to Enlarge: Low-Tech Training

SOURCE: Market Data Retrieval, 2005 Public School Technology Survey

“When you go back to data, to numbers, then you’ve got no excuses [not to succeed],” he says. “And it’s not about just having data. It’s what you do with it.”

Poway’s metamorphosis into a data-driven district has been gradual.

In 2000, the district had a student-information system, Pearson School Systems’ SASIxp, but it was limited, says Collins, the deputy superintendent. The system didn’t contain students’ test data, for instance. Users also had to write queries with computer code to do simple analyses—easy for a computer geek but hard for the average user.

Poway had other data, in such areas as finance and human resources. But the numbers were kept in separate databases and were usually inaccessible to most employees. And it was impossible for teachers to track their students’ performance on standardized tests over more than one year.

‘Actionable Information’

That scenario is typical for most districts, say researchers such as Jeffrey C. Wayman, a professor in the department of educational administration at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Schools have had a glut of data for years,” he says. “The challenge is to turn this data into actionable information.”

Poway realized that earlier than most districts. The district partnered in 2001 with the Northwest Evaluation Association to use the nonprofit organization’s Web-based benchmark assessments. In 2003, Poway also hired SAS Institute Inc., a business-analytics software company based in Cary, N.C., that was making its first forays into the K-12 market. The company built an online data-warehouse, -management, and -analysis system based on its data tools for businesses, but customized for the Poway district.

The data warehouse pulls information from the district’s Total Information Management system, as well as from the SASIxp, human-resources, and even financial-management systems. Administrators can allocate more funding and other resources to a school whose test scores are slipping, for example. Soon, the data warehouse also will be able to pull information from the district’s transportation and food-service databases.

All that may sound straightforward. But just compiling, “cleaning,” and uploading all of the district’s data—from Excel spreadsheets, online databases, student files held with paper clips, and even handwritten information—into one umbrella system took two years, says Ray A. Wilson, Poway’s executive director of assessment and accountability.

“Becoming a data-driven district is easy to say,” Wilson says. “But it’s a whole change in the way you do business.”

And it’s usually expensive. Poway got a deep discount from SAS for being the company’s pilot district: about $590,000 total for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years, or about $8.80 per student per year.

Usually, a customized, powerful system for data management, analysis, and warehousing costs roughly $8 for an “out of the box” system to $14 or more per student annually for highly customized systems, say a number of representatives of such companies.

‘The Starting Point’

Several miles from Los Penasquitos Elementary, through broad suburban streets lined with terra-cotta-roofed houses, six 3rd grade teachers at Shoal Creek Elementary School discuss their students’ midyear scores in reading on the MAP tests.

Sitting in blue plastic chairs sized for 8-year-olds, they hold their data printouts, and immediately see which children need help in literal comprehension, say, and which ones performed above the proficient level in interpretive comprehension.

The bottom line, it becomes obvious when someone is not teaching to standards."

Scores on the MAP scale range from 150 to 400 and achievement levels vary by grade. For example, 3rd grade breaks down this way: 161-190 points is below proficient, 191-220 is proficient, and 221-230 and above is advanced.

The names of the pupils who performed below proficient are color-coded in red. The students in the proficient range are in green, and the students with above-proficient scores are in blue.

The teachers cheer when they realize that not all of the students who scored above proficient were in the gifted and talented program. Then they discuss a plan to team-teach all 160 of their students.

Twice a week, the teachers will stop their individual classroom teaching and instead instruct groups of five to 20 students from across the grade level for 25 minutes. The children are grouped according to the literacy skills in which they need to improve.

Ready access to data has helped make that kind of targeted teacher collaboration possible, says Wendy Smith-Rogers, the principal of the 700-student school. That’s especially important, she says, because the district lost 18 of 22 reading specialists because of budget cuts a few years ago.

She and another administrator say that benchmark assessments such as MAP get “underneath” a standardized-test number. “If you don’t [assess] throughout the year, how do you know how students are doing?” Smith-Rogers says.

Down the road at Poway High School, Principal Scott Fisher also looks at data to see how his teachers are teaching to state standards. He says that teaching has become more complex than even five years ago, and that the use of data helps teachers hone their daily instruction.

After Poway High students take the California Standards Tests in the spring, Fisher can group the scores according to teacher. “The bottom line, it becomes obvious when someone is not teaching to standards,” he says.

No punitive action is taken, he and Assistant Principal Lynelle Antrim emphasize. Rather, the revelation “opens up a more professional dialogue,” Antrim says. “It’s now more about getting students the information they need,” she says. “It’s not anymore, ‘Oh, that student failed. Oh, well.’ ”

Terry Libby, an AP English and journalism teacher who is sitting in an administrative office with Fisher and Antrim, nods thoughtfully.

“Data is the starting point of the conversation,” she says.


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