Special Report
Education Funding

Finding the Funding

By Rhea R. Borja — May 02, 2006 4 min read
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Getting to this high-desert town from Los Angeles means driving due east until the glut of big-box stores lining the freeways thins out, then navigating hairpin turns through a stretch of sere, squat hills called the Badlands.

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But while the 6,000-student Beaumont Unified School District seems isolated, it has something that many bigger, metropolitan districts lack: an integrated computerized system for producing, analyzing, and storing test scores and other student data.

A system for data management, analysis, and warehousing doesn’t come cheap. It can run in the millions of dollars, and requires upkeep by trained information-technology specialists. Small districts often lack that kind of money and manpower.

Still, this fast-growing community has found a way around those obstacles. At the start of this school year, it contracted with Achieve Data Solutions LLC, a San Bernardino, Calif.-based data company founded and run by former educators.

Darrell W. Brown, Beaumont’s coordinator of data assessment and accountability and its adult education principal, says the company’s data system is affordable compared with others he’s looked at.

Achieve Data Solutions charges $2.90 per student, plus $1 extra per student if a district uses the company’s item bank of test questions. Brown found that the going rate is typically upwards of $8 a student. “We’ve walked in [educators’] shoes,” says Linda Ricchiuti, the vice president of Achieve Data Solutions. “We don’t make money off the little districts, but that’s part of our mission.”

Small-District Squeeze

The company’s DataDirector Web-based tool allows Beaumont educators to see, sort, and analyze student demographic information, grades, and state standardized-test scores, as well as scores from the district’s periodic “formative” assessments. It can track test scores over time, and easily produce reports.

In addition, a 1,000-item bank of test questions linked to California state standards is embedded into DataDirector, which helps Beaumont teachers craft their own periodic assessments rather than buy them from outside vendors.

Beaumont has experienced growing pains over the past five years. The district’s enrollment zoomed from 3,774 students in 2001 to more than 6,000 students today, straining resources amid an economic downturn that sliced school budgets statewide. The district, within a half-day’s drive of the Mexican border, also has a 20 percent population of English-language learners and students who, though considered English-proficient, still need continuing language help.

The enrollment increase set off seismic shifts that include the opening of three new schools; switches to K-5 elementary schools from those separately serving K-1, grades 2-3, and grades 4-6; and changes in attendance boundaries that led to transfers of teachers and students between schools.

“When you do all that, the informal structures teachers and schools have suffer,” Brown says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Beaumont’s scores on California’s Academic Performance Index, a test-based accountability measure, took a hit as enrollment soared. From 2003 to 2004, for example, the district’s API score fell 7 points, from 699 to 692 on a 1,000-point scale.

While that drop may seem minor, it masked sharper declines in some individual schools, Brown says. One elementary school’s showing on the API fell 21 points, while another’s score dropped 9 points.

“Teachers panicked,” Brown recalls. Some of them questioned the validity of the state tests, and principals called to ask why their students’ scores had dropped and what they could do to help raise them.

‘A Culture of Inquiry’

So, starting in the fall of 2004, the district piloted various data-management and -analysis tools, and offered six-day data-training workshops so teachers and principals could learn how to get a better read on their students. Most important, teachers started using the data to fine-tune their instruction and reteach their students in areas of academic weakness, according to Brown.

Beaumont’s performance on the API quickly rebounded, rising from 692 to 726 points from 2004 to 2005. That increase was the largest in Riverside County, which contains 23 school districts, including Beaumont.

“Just looking at data does nothing to improve student scores,” Brown says. “I’d attribute [the increase] to teachers’ making modifications in their classrooms by looking at data. That was key.”

The district hopes to do even better this year, following its decision to start using Achieve Data Solutions’ DataDirector last fall, as educators quickly outgrew the previous data system.

“We’ve always based solutions on hunches,” Brown says. “No more. Now there’s a districtwide culture of inquiry.”

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