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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

To Keep Primary Students Learning and Growing, Start With Data

By Janice Pavelonis — January 17, 2021 5 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Janice Pavelonis, the assistant superintendent of curriculum & instruction for Carbondale Elementary School District 95 in Illinois.

Like our peers around the country, at Carbondale Elementary School District #95, we’ve been worried about the depth of the “COVID Slide,” the expected learning losses students will experience as a result of school closures in response to the pandemic. While there have been setbacks and there’s plenty of work yet to do, our districtwide commitment to assessment has given us confidence in our path forward and some stability to lean on in uncertain times.

I came to Carbondale ESD at the same time as our superintendent, which was just over two years ago. The district had a history of declining achievement. State reading scores were down to 17 percent of students meeting or exceeding, and math scores were down to 13 percent of students meeting or exceeding. I was hired to help transform the district, to help install a new culture and bring those scores up. My first step was to provide our teachers with powerful assessment tools and the professional development to put them to effective use. In previous administrative roles, I’d had success working with Renaissance, so we decided to partner with them.

There was a need to rebuild trust between the teachers and the administrators when I started, so another first step was to hold in-house trainings where I displayed all our past achievement data for teachers to see. It was hard for our teachers and administrators to see on the “big screen,” but I needed them to feel some urgency. I needed everyone in the district to know that the data has shown this lack of progress all along. It was time to look at them and use them as a foundation for improvement. Our teachers and administrators embraced that urgency and rolled up their sleeves to be a part of the change.

The change started with a district commitment to building and supporting a well-developed, comprehensive data system across all levels. We established and maintained a comprehensive, 4-Step Data Analysis (Image below) and Implementation system through instructional, school, and district leadership teams. Teachers and administrators were trained through professional learning systems, then benchmark data was used to move through the system throughout the year. The culture of data across the district began to change.


Teachers quickly felt more competent in reviewing data due to the high-quality professional learning they participated in, as well as having easy-to-use protocols to apply when they looked at data. Teachers were well on their way to becoming data experts, especially after the first time they moved through the system with real-time student data. Then COVID shut down schools in the spring.

Progress-Monitoring From a Distance

The good news for us was that the process our teachers had recently become accustomed to is the same process that’s helping us identify any learning gaps students develop associated with COVID. To see where our youngest learners stood, we had them come to school to be assessed in person, one at a time. For older students, whom we assessed remotely, we talked to our teachers about the importance of doing it in small groups, and they in turn talked to their students about the importance of assessments. Once again, our teachers embraced the urgency and rolled up their sleeves, and we had buy-in from parents as well.

Overall, it went very well, but we hit a little trouble with 2nd grade remote testing. We found that some parents helped their children because they didn’t want to see them struggle. While we know that helping their child might seem beneficial to them, it was important for us to know exactly what each student knew and did not know. A few teachers were reporting that they saw parents leaning over their students’ shoulder or a hand reaching across the screen at times to help their children. Those teachers were telling the principal, “I don’t know if we can trust these scores,” because they were hearing whispering, or the students were muting themselves during the assessments. It prompted some to go back and compare those students’ scores with previous assessment outcomes and see if a retest might be in order.

In hindsight, we may have been too ambitious in testing our 2nd graders remotely so soon and we probably should have considered testing them in person instead. Some extra messaging to their parents about the importance of finding out exactly where students are might have helped as well. Our parents are committed to the positive shifts in our district, so moving forward, we will partner with them more deeply to ensure validity in the assessments if students remain remote.

Assessing the COVID Slide

With everyone talking about the COVID Slide, I was expecting scores to be really low compared with past years’. Our scores actually showed some growth in most grade levels since last fall, with hints of the COVID Slide in some small areas. In fact, what we found when comparing this fall’s initial assessment results with last fall’s is that scores are very similar across both years, if not better, with the exception of 2nd grade. These scores indicate that for the vast majority of our students, learning loss may not have occurred, but rather learning levels were maintained or improved.

Did the help from home or some other factor related to the unusual assessment conditions impact those scores? To help us answer that question, we will be intentional about retesting students to compare scores with the initial remote assessments to see how they match up.

In the meantime, in the absence of in-person training, we’re giving teachers online tools like Focus Skills to guide their efforts to help students progress as quickly as possible. I’m a firm believer in teaching all the standards, but in these extraordinary circumstances, we need to first address those standards that are the building blocks to later progress. Our interventionists are using the Focus Skills in grades below or a few grades below to ensure that students are working on the most specific skills to bridge achievement gaps. Our grade-level classroom teachers are looking at the Focus Skills for on-level skills they teach to make sure that they have evidence of mastery of those. We see ALL of these as “building blocks” for our students.

While there have been plenty of challenges, and we’ve had to make some adjustments here and there, at heart, the appropriate response to school closures has been to keep doing what we do: Find out where kids are and give them the tools to succeed from there.

Connect with Janice on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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