Assessment

User-Friendly Reports On Student Test Scores Help Guide Instruction

By Lynn Olson — May 26, 2004 7 min read
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Pennsylvania officials were expected this week to unveil the designs for new reports on student and school test performance that are customized to meet the needs of parents, teachers, and school leaders, as well as provide a direct link to instruction.

The reports, produced under a four-year, $9.98 million contract with the Grow Network, a New York City-based company, reflect a growing recognition that how school data are reported shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, test results provide a crucial opportunity to communicate with parents, teachers, and others about student achievement and how it can be improved.

Pennsylvania has taken that message to heart by separating the contract for test-score reporting from the contract for test development and administration.

“We’ve been working to improve our assessment system, and we wanted to link that improved system more directly to curriculum and instruction,” said state Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips.

“We actually wanted [the reports] to be a useful tool,” she continued, “and felt that breaking it out and contracting with a group who sees that as their core mission would be one way to accomplish that.”

In addition to the print component of the Grow reports, an interactive Web site enables teachers to group students by sets of skills and to access instructional materials linked to state standards. Principals can use the Web site to monitor school and classroom performance. Parents can find suggested reading lists and other tools for helping their children.

The company’s first contract, in 2001, was to produce reports for grades 3- 8 for teachers, parents, and administrators in the New York City public schools. It also generates such reports for the Chicago schools and, starting this school year, for parents and teachers in California. And it has won contracts with Nevada, New Mexico, and New Jersey.

Addressing a Need

David Coleman, the company’s 34-year-old chief executive officer, conceived the idea for the Grow Network while a senior project manager at the New York City McKinsey consulting firm. During his five years there, he did pro bono work for school districts.

“I found, despite widespread discussion of using data to guide instruction, it was very hard to do so with the tools that principals, teachers, and parents had available,” Mr. Coleman said.

So he gathered an eclectic team of educators, business people, and technology specialists to build software that turns the results of standardized tests into a user-friendly, simple-to-read format.

The company, which was founded in 2000, today employs about 70 people and expects to have revenues of $15 million to $20 million this year. Depending on the scope of the work, most of its contracts run between $1 million and $3 million annually.

“The thing I say all the time about Grow is that it’s the first thing that teachers cheered,” said David B. Sherman, a vice president for the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

“What the Grow Network did was they translated the data into instructional terms and into practical terms in a very smart way, so it is as teacher-friendly and as student-friendly as anything of this type can be,” he said.

“The materials from the Grow Network are the first ones—and, frankly, the only ones to date—that teachers have not only received warmly, but have found to be very, very valuable,” said Mr. Sherman, whose organization is an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

As seen in this sample, the Grow Network report uses traffic-light colors to show a student’s achievement level. The student, school, and data in this model are solely for illustration purposes.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the parent reports include suggestions for reading and mathematics activities that parents can do at home with their child, based on his or her test results. They also include useful suggestions for talking with the child’s teacher and information about Pennsylvania’s public libraries and other resources.

The reports, for grades 3, 5, 8, and 11, use a traffic- light device to signal quickly to parents how their children are doing academically. “Below basic” is colored red, “basic” is yellow, and “advanced” and “proficient” are green. An arrow points to where the child’s score falls, with the specific score listed below the graphic.

Inside the reports, each child’s reading and math scores are broken out by topic, pegged to Pennsylvania’s academic standards—such as learning to read independently or being able to do computations without a calculator.

Teachers will receive test results for their incoming classes of students in the summer, based on tests given the previous spring. Those reports highlight where a class is likely to need help with fundamentals, extra instruction and practice, or advanced work.

Each teacher also has an account on Grow Network’s interactive Web site. With a click, teachers can group pupils based on their performance on specific topics or other criteria. Another click permits them to link a student’s needs with a set of instructional materials and strategies that are themselves linked to state or district standards. In addition, teachers can pull up a detailed academic profile for each student.

Pennsylvania also will produce school assessment reports and reports that help educators and the public understand whether schools have made “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Testing companies don’t focus on the instructional side,” said Carina Wong, the director of assessment and accountability for the Pennsylvania education department. “We saw this as an opportunity to use the reporting to support instruction.”

‘Incredibly Useful’

The idea, according to Mr. Coleman, is to make the print materials and the Web site as easy to use as an automatic teller machine.

“Many states and districts ask us, ‘Will you provide training on how to read the reports?’ ” he said. “Our reply is, ‘If the reports require training to read, they should be redesigned.’ ”

A two- year, $400,000 study, financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by the Education Development Center, suggests teachers and principals in the Big Apple are using the reports. While the nonprofit research center has not finished analyzing all the data, said Margaret Honey, a vice president at the Newton, Mass.-based EDC who directed the study, “there was just absolutely no doubt that the format of the Grow reports was incredibly useful to everyone.”

Based on interviews with teachers and principals in 15 New York City elementary and middle schools and surveys sent to more than 700 educators, researchers found that teachers used the reports in three ways: to help with planning, including setting class priorities and doing weekly or monthly lesson planning; to differentiate instruction; and to converse with parents and others.

Some teachers, for example, printed out all the teaching materials on the Grow Network’s Web site and then set up a file folder for each child that contained the student’s Grow report and practice activities targeted for him or her.

Brian D. Schultz, a 5th grade teacher at the 400-student Richard E. Byrd Community Academy in Chicago, said he does not support standardized testing, but he’s found that “Grow provides an avenue to really help students.”

Mr. Schultz, who was previously a performance manager in the corporate world, uses the Grow information to make individual learning workbooks for his students. Although he doesn’t attribute the results to the Grow tools alone, he notes that at the beginning of the last school year, none of his students tested at or above the national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, administered in the Chicago district. After using the customized learning books based on Grow’s information, 47 percent of his students tested at or above the national norm in mathematics.

Investment Questioned

A study conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research provides a more mixed review. “Overall, teachers felt moderately positive about their experiences with the Grow Network during its first year of implementation,” says the report issued in January by John Q. Easton and Stuart Luppescu.

The study found that a majority of teachers in grades 4-8 used the Grow resources, and slightly more than half of respondents found the various components beneficial. Compared with teachers, elementary principals in Chicago were “overwhelmingly positive about Grow,” according to the report.

“Most teachers we talk to really like the way the data are presented,” said Dan Bugler, who oversees accountability, research, and evaluation for the more than 435,000-student Chicago district. “If there’s a criticism, it’s that they get the data at the beginning of the year, but we don’t really have a lot of benchmark assessments, so they don’t have any data at the midyear point. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

But not everybody thinks the investment in Grow is worthwhile. State Rep. Christine R. Giunchigliani of Nevada, a Democrat, said she opposed the $2.8 million contract that her state has signed with the company.

“I don’t think we need to waste $2.8 million to develop a brochure to tell people what the test scores are,” she argued, noting that most large school districts have their own internal media departments that could furnish such information.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as User-Friendly Reports On Student Test Scores Help Guide Instruction

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