School District of Philadelphia Uses Web-Based System to Increase Student Achievement


Last fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted in a speech that high school education is "an unrecognized educational crisis in this country." This statement is reaffirmed by a 2003 Manhattan Institute study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which found that only 70% of U.S. high school students graduate. Many students also graduate high school with profound skill gaps in math and English - with a recent USA TODAY article reporting that 53% of U.S. college students take at least one remedial course. Even more challenging is the fact that with federal legislation raising the stakes for student performance, teachers are required to fit more into their already crowded curricula.

In the School District of Philadelphia, we face the same challenges on a large scale. As the seventh largest district in the United States, we serve more than 56,000 students throughout 55 high schools. Our system includes neighborhood schools as well as several magnet, vocational and alternative schools. In 2002, we conducted an evaluation of our high schools to better understand the scope and nature of the critical issues in our system. The results were startling: Average high school attendance from September through December 2002 was 83.6%, with ninth grade having the lowest attendance rate at 80.6%. In addition, the promotion rate from ninth to 10th grade for all schools was 52.8%, with that rate dropping down to 45.6% specifically at the neighborhood high schools. With no standard curriculum and more than 1,000 different courses being taught throughout our schools, there was no curricular consistency for our highly mobile students as they moved between schools.

The Initiative

The evidence clearly showed that our high schools were in need of innovative solutions to improve the foundation for student success. However, rather than just implementing another wave of short-lived reform, we wanted to create initiatives that would become internalized and hold sustainable and valuable change throughout our district. Hence, we created the Secondary Education Movement - our plan for high school improvement - together with a detailed strategic plan to outline our vision and ensure that we could measure our progress toward very specific goals.

The mission of the Secondary Education Movement ( is to equip and support district teachers, administrators and staff in their efforts to provide every student with a rich, challenging, diversified and relevant curriculum in a clean, safe, state-of-the-art facility. Furthermore, our goal is to ensure that every graduate be prepared for postsecondary education, including technical or vocational training, so that he or she will emerge as a productive citizen ready for meaningful participation in society. Our plan focused on six key objectives:

  1. Creating a core curriculum consistent across all schools;
  2. Improving the physical and intellectual learning environment of our schools;
  3. Increasing the range of learning options for students;
  4. Providing academic and counseling support for teachers and students;
  5. Modernizing high school administration and organization; and
  6. Developing an accountability and assessment system to monitor our progress.

A critical element to achieving these goals was the selection of a system that provided student-level data, state and federal standards-aligned data, individualized instructional resources, and ongoing assessment. It was imperative that we began to close the skill gap, especially among our ninth-graders, to ensure that all students achieve proficiency in math and English.

The Program

After much investigation and evaluation, we selected the Kaplan Achievement Planner, a research-based system that we determined best fit our district's needs. The Achievement Planner is a Web-based system that prescribes lesson plans and ongoing formative assessments that increase student achievement in targeted areas. Teachers often face problems when trying to work with student data because the data can be outdated, irrelevant to this year's class, or not aggregated in a useful way to allow teachers to use the data to inform instruction. Lack of meaningful data also drives many teachers to believe that students are at the most basic instructional level on all standards - a premise which is not supported by the data.

We believed that the Achievement Planner's cycle of data-informed instruction would give our teachers the information and instructional tools needed to improve student performance and close skill gaps. The Achievement Planner accomplishes its objectives through four fundamental areas:

  • Sophisticated data analysis. The system imports our state test data and matches it to current student rosters, providing us with a picture of current student performance on the Pennsyl-vania state test topics and standards.
  • Tailored instructional plans and ready-to-use resources. Based on the data analyses, the system identifies specific areas where students need both challenge and remediation. It then prescribes appropriately leveled lesson plans so students receive the instruction they need to help them master standards-based curriculum objectives.
  • Formative assessment and feedback on student progress. This tool enables teachers to monitor student progress through ongoing online and offline assessments. Written in the idiom of our state test, the assessments gauge student progress toward mastery of state standard topics. These tests are scanned on-site or administered online, and the results are immediately available. It is important for our teachers to have immediate feedback in order to make good instructional decisions. Reports show the number of students at each performance level for every standard topic tested, as well as identify class strengths and weaknesses. Student-level reports display individual progress toward state standards.
  • Updated lesson plan prescriptions. These reports then prescribe new curriculum based on student progress, enabling teachers to adjust their instruction accordingly. This starts the cycle of data-informed instruction again.

Best Practices

In fall 2003, we provided the Achievement Planner to all of our high schools. Kaplan consultants provided each school with hands-on professional development with the system and ongoing on-site visits throughout the school year to help teachers and administrators understand the data, set goals, and make the best instructional decisions for our students.

The data-driven instruction and assessment system provided by the Achievement Planner has already begun impacting teacher behavior, and many have started using data to plan and deliver instruction. The system has also helped us increase student achievement, and we have seen theses gains on the benchmarks administered through the system. As a result of our first year of implementing the Achievement Planner's data-driven system, we have identified several best practices for helping improve student performance, including:

Establish realistic expectations for usage. Any new program takes time to learn and master in order to reap the full benefits. Rather than implementing the system on a broad scale, we began by focusing on the ninth-grade year and then expanded it to other grades. We also relied on early adopters of the program to support other teachers in their schools and provide professional development.

Provide professional development in stages. Teachers and administrators need a structured professional development plan that first focuses on one key aspect of the program - allowing users time to learn and utilize that feature - and then builds upon the knowledge. For example, we began by ensuring that teachers and administrators were comfortable with the basic functionality of the Achievement Planner before moving onto data-driven decision-making.

Provide coaches to work individually with teachers and administrators using their students' or school's actual data. Data becomes very powerful when it is meaningful to the user. Teachers and administrators can relate to data when it is attached to their students. The one-on-one interaction between the coach and the teacher or administrator encourages focused and meaningful discussions about what the data shows and how to make good instructional decisions.

Assemble teams of administrators and teachers to evaluate the data and plan for school improvement. Working within school teams creates a sense of collaboration and shared vision. When our administrators and teachers worked together to analyze their data in the Achievement Planner, they found similarities among classes and grade levels. Once a problem area was identified, they could work together to find innovative solutions that worked best for their school's needs.

Encourage teachers to set class and student performance goals. Analyzing data represents a positive first step; teachers need to then take the next step to set realistic goals based on current student performance. Tools such as the Achievement Planner allow for monitoring progress toward these goals and adjusting goals as appropriate. Goal-setting can be motivational to both administrators and teachers, and it allows for the measuring of student progress.

- Creg E. Williams, Ed.D.
Deputy Chief Academic Officer, The School District of Philadelphia

Contact Information

Kaplan Inc.
(888) KAPLAN-8

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.