Polk Co. Schools Rely on Florida-Specific Assessment Tool to Develop Individual Learning Paths

A unique assessment program in a large Florida school district has proven that a vision, commitment, comprehensive assessment and instructional technology strategy can yield dramatic gains in student achievement scores. The Polk County School District in central Florida serves a diverse population of more than 81,000 K-12 students — with more than 31,000 minority and more than 3,000 Limited English Proficient students. This diversity, combined with a high student-mobility rate, presented a challenge to Polk County educators determined to provide students with an exemplary education, while helping them master the challenging state assessment tests.

Accountability for student learning is a primary focus of Florida’s education system. A key component is Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is administered to all public school students in grades 3-10. FCAT measures student mastery of Sunshine State Standards and benchmarks. Results are the basis of Florida’s school improvement and accountability system; and ultimately are used to determine the effectiveness of each school’s educational program.

To help increase student achievement and improve FCAT scores, the Information Systems and Technology Division of the Polk County School District decided to increase the effectiveness of instructional technology and implement a best practices approach. The program combines proven practices, technology-based instruction and ongoing professional development. The goals of the program are to:

· Help educators assess individual student achievement relative to FCAT benchmarks;

· Determine strategies for improving student achievement through best practices combined with managed instructional technology;

· Provide diagnostic information to help educators more effectively plan classroom instruction; and

· Ensure educators are continually learning and growing in their use of technology with instruction.

Polk County personnel partnered with CompassLearning, a San Diego, Calif.-based instructional technology company, to implement the program.

Best Practices

Working together, Compass- Learning educational consultants and Polk County educators identified the five best practices that contribute to improved student achievement in the classroom. Participating schools agreed to abide by the implementation guidelines surrounding the following five best practices:

1. Administrative involvement and coaching;

2. Targeted student groups who receive 90 minutes of time-on-task per week per curriculum on the system;

3. Active teacher involvement;

4. Leadership teams; and

5. Ongoing professional development.

Administrative involvement and coaching. Recognizing the important role the principal plays in instructional leadership, the program requires the administrator to review student reports each month, lead monthly leadership team meetings, attend district information meetings and attend a half-day of administrator training. The goal is to enhance the administrators’ role as instructional leaders, as well as give them the knowledge and tools to make effective data-driven decisions.

Target groups and time-on-task. Target groups of students were selected to pretest in the instructional labs on specific standards-based reading and math curricula using a Florida-specific assessment tool, which was built by CompassLearning based on the FCAT item specifications. The assessment system develops an individual learning path for each student based on FCAT benchmarks the student has not yet mastered. These learning paths accommodate their own learning styles, allowing students to move on only when they have mastered the specific content being assessed. The students work for 90 minutes per week on each curric-ulum. This requirement is based on the research that shows dedicated time-on-task promotes student knowledge and understanding. Students in the target group take the post-test in February, then their academic gains are recorded so instruction can be modified based on strengths and weaknesses. Schools also provide after-school tutoring to encourage progress.

Active teacher involvement. Teacher participation in data-driven decision making, monitoring of student progress and directing the instructional program are vital to a successful implementation that results in student academic gains. Teachers monitor students as they work through their learning paths and intervene when needed.

Leadership teams. The leadership team — led by the administrator and including key teachers, network and lab managers, district school technology services personnel, and Compass- Learning educational consultants — manages the progress of the program and meets monthly to monitor student progress, review the five best practices and address any concerns. The members of the team keep the project on track, while collectively making decisions about instruction and curriculum.

Ongoing professional development. Administrators, teachers and managers are required to attend training classes during their participation in the program. Teachers learn what resources are available to them and how to use the tools to enhance their instruction in the lab as well as in their own classrooms. They learn how to use both pretests and post-tests to support student learning and become proficient at creating reports that reflect student learning. Teachers also complete pre- and post-self-evaluations to monitor their own personal growth and comfort level in using technology with instruction. This allows for ongoing professional development toward enhancing teachers’ technology implementation skills.

Technical Support and Training Facilities

The school technology services department provides technical and consulting support for these learning labs at 91 sites within the district. Currently, Polk County has four dedicated training-center sites with another site expected by the end of the year. These sites are located in areas like local malls, district offices, schools and technical centers to encourage participation. In addition, the district recently launched a mobile classroom — an outfitted diesel bus with two computer carts and 20 laptops that are on a wireless network. This way, students are not taken away from their own lab time to allow teachers to train.

Impressive Results

Initially, 10 schools volunteered to be a part of the pilot program, including several schools that served as control groups. Last year, 57 schools participated, targeting their fourth-graders for reading and their fifth-graders for math. Of these schools, the fourth-graders who emphasized additional training for teachers as well as network and lab managers saw gains of at least 16% in reading scores from pretest to post-test; and fifth-graders at the schools made gains of at least 16% from pretest to post-test on the math test. Each year these best practices are reviewed and monitored based on feedback from participants as well as the results of the FCAT. However, it is clear that the program is preparing students for Florida’s high-stakes tests and sup-porting their overall academic success.

For more information on Polk County, visit www.pcsb.k12.fl.us.

Contact Information
CompassLearning Inc.
San Diego, CA
(800) 422-4339

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.