As the pride of this planned city in affluent Orange County, the Irvine public school system regularly sends about 60 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and garners top marks on statewide accountability reports.
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With a record like that, it would be easy to let the successes of the district’s many high-performing students mask the struggles of hundreds of others who underachieve academically.
Yet educators in this 25,000-student district know that they can’t afford to coast. Though the district ranks toward the top on California’s Academic Performance Index, it must keep improving or face possible state sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
So Irvine school leaders have turned to data analysis and warehousing for help. Last July, the district partnered with Lakewood, Colo.-based Executive Intelligence Inc. to clean up and compile district and student-test data, receive daily updates from Irvine’s student-information system and online student assessments, and provide an easy-to-use Web interface for teachers and others with minimal database training.
“Although about 70 percent of our students meet proficiency, we still have 30 percent who [don’t],” says Mark S. Sontag, the district’s data-management trainer and math- and science-curriculum coordinator. “So we are using the data warehouse as a vehicle to make [us] more aware of how we’re responsible for all students.”
Teachers can now drill down into individual students’ grades, state and district standardized-test data, and benchmark assessments, and look at their achievement over time. Doing so allows teachers to track which state standards particular students have mastered, for example, and where they are falling short.
That kind of analysis would have been nearly impossible before the system was put in place, educators here say.
“I normally use pencil and paper to create my own tables and sort them,” says Andrea Wakefield, a 6th grade teacher at University Park Elementary School, during a district training session, adding that the process consumed many hours.
“Here, with a click of a button, … I can do a trend analysis,” she says. “Data is powerful.”
‘Reading Off the Same Page’
Wakefield sat in a classroom on a day in February with a handful of other elementary teachers and principals, learning how to use the powerful data-warehouse and -analysis system.
In the 2½-hour session, the educators viewed their students’ test scores from the current year, as well as for the past two. They scanned reams of data: State test scores. District literacy data. Online classroom assessments. Student demographic information.
Wakefield sat before a computer and easily searched and re-arranged data on her 90 students according to whim. She could see immediately which of them needed help in math, for example, or those who performed above grade level but whose scores flat-lined over time, perhaps showing that they weren’t being challenged enough.
“This makes my life easier,” Wakefield remarks.
As in other districts starting to integrate data comprehensively, the Irvine district offers three levels of data-system access.
The superintendent and other administrators can view data for all schools and students. Principals can see data for students in their schools, grouped by teacher or not. And teachers can view and sort data for their students.
While providing such capabilities may seem like a no-brainer, that kind of data access wasn’t available until recently, says Mark S. Williams, the president of Executive Intelligence, which works with about 100 districts nationwide.
In the past, most districts kept their student data under lock and key in the central office, he says.
“In the early years, most districts were afraid to allow anyone outside the administration building to see the data, or even admit that they had it. They were struggling themselves as to what the data meant,” he says. “Now, everyone is reading off the same page.”
Geoffrey Jurak, a 5th grade teacher at the K-8 Vista Verde School, says having the tools to access and analyze data in a variety of ways has made teaching more collaborative.
Teachers at his school meet in grade-level teams regularly to look at their students’ data and fine-tune instruction accordingly.
“We can course-correct in the moment,” he says. “I can see across a whole class how [students] stand.”
Sontag, who sat nearby and nodded as Jurak spoke, emphasizes that just gathering the data is not enough.
Numbers by themselves are meaningless, he says. Teachers and principals need to sort and manipulate the data so they can home in on where their students need more help.
“If we stop at just collecting data and doing reports,” Sontag says, “we have stopped well short of what we should do.”