Virginia: Data Warehouse Helps Hanover County Public Schools Raise Student Achiev

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The ice is starting to retreat from the warmer parts of the Earth. Early man, a hunter, is beginning to make his way in the Stone Age. His entire existence depends upon what he can scavenge from his surroundings; survival is the measure of his success.

When it comes to data, many educators are hunters. After they have gathered all the information they need, the real challenges begin. How is the data entered into an electronic format that can be manipulated? What tools are available to retrieve the data? Before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it was possible to survive in this sea of data just by getting one's feet wet. Anecdotal narratives about student performance were the rule of the day, and many decisions about curriculum and instruction were based on this information. Time was not spent reflecting on real data because little or no data existed in a format that could be analyzed.

Timely Test Results

Almost five years ago, Hanover County Public Schools began its quest to provide the educational community with the tools necessary to make data-driven decisions. School Superintendent Stewart Roberson chaired a committee of district instructional and technical members to develop a method for examining the implications of longitudinal assessment of student achievement. The district's Instructional Decision Support System (IDSS) was the outcome of months of research. IDSS is a data warehouse that focuses on student achievement.

Simply put, a data warehouse consists of different data sources (e.g., main student database, state standardized tests, Stanford tests, SAT, ACT, district generated data, etc.) feeding into a robust database housed on a powerful server that is accessible to administrators throughout the district. The final key component is a user-friendly interface that provides nontechnical people with easy access to information from their computers. Due to recent advances, this solution now has a price that most school districts can afford.

The two key pieces of software that Hanover County Public Schools selected for this project were the Microsoft SQL Server for its database and solutions from Business Objects for delivering the content to administrators. There are many reports that administrators generate on the fly, while complicated queries are created by a more technical person and posted to a Web site for principals across the district.

One of the greatest challenges in administering a data warehouse is keeping the data current. The Hanover County Public Schools system has created procedures that run each night to move data from its student information system into the warehouse. In the fall of 2001, Virginia initiated a program to assist in providing timely reporting of its standardized test results. It is an online assessment system for all high school courses that are tested. To date, 120 of the state's 132 school districts participate in this online testing.

Customizing Curricula

IDSS has also changed the way the district d'es business. The system allows teachers and administrators to analyze data and change the curriculum and instruction based on facts, not feelings. Each year Dr. Phil Pavlidis, assistant principal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, leads the staff in a "data day." Teachers spend the morning grouped by departments analyzing student data. In the afternoon, they regroup by teams and repeat the exercise. At the end of the day, they make recommendations that have helped improve their school.

In Virginia, school districts receive a composite score and individual skills-tested scores for each student. An example of this would be the composite score for the fifth-grade math test and its skills of computation and estimation; measurement and geometry; probability and statistics; patterns, functions and algebra; and number sense scores. With the new data warehouse, a school principal can generate a report in minutes that will produce averages, as well as minimum and maximum scores for the composite and the five categories. In addition, a simple drag of the mouse can enhance this report so that it can be examined by gender, soci'economic background, disability or any other indicator in the database. The data warehouse technology also allows schools to provide customized curricula according to the skill level of the students.

Dr. Carol Cash, principal of Hanover High School, provides her algebra II teachers with a roster of their students that includes not only their algebra I composite scores, but also all of the students' state test scores broken down by skill. This gives the algebra II teachers a good indication of the skill level of each student in the class. Dr. Cash is able to generate these reports in about 10 minutes. Since the warehouse contains data from 1999 to the present, administrators can look at five-year comparisons, in graph form, of all their standardized tests. They also can compare their school to others in the district in a matter of seconds. These school profiles are delivered to the principals' desks each morning. This one report provides the administrator with information on student attendance, discipline and schedules. It also highlights students who need special attention, which helps avoid problems before they occur.

Keys to Success

The keys to the success of IDSS have been the support received from school boards and superintendents, a vigorous and ongoing training program, data stewards who review data in their area of responsibility, and a Web site that provides administrators a one-stop location to get key reports.

This summer, the Virginia Department of Education will kick off its Educational Information Management System (EIMS), a statewide data warehouse that will greatly assist school districts with NCLB reporting requirements. When EIMS is fully implemented, Virginia administrators will leave their hunter heritage behind and move to a new higher-level reflection. And with reflection comes greater educational reform and higher student achievement.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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