Surviving Accountability: As Easy as AYP

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->Data-driven strategies and personalized instruction are paving the wayto higher test scores, one student at a time.

Surviving AccountabilityCONSIDER ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS a misnomer, or least an understatement; satisfying its mandates demands a far greater than adequate effort. Established in the No Child Left Behind Act, AYP requires that districts and schools show a minimum, prescribed level of growth in student achievement, until the year 2013-2014, when every eligible public school student must pass state assessments in math and reading. And reaching those prescribed minimumsis a difficult, complex task.

Schools struggling with AYP should look to the example of dozens of their counterparts around the country that have taken a personal approach to raising test scores. Instead of applying broad academic policies and inviting teachers to statewide conferences to learn about new teaching methods, these schools use data to gauge student progress at any point during the school year, and then use the information to customize curriculum and instructional programs. The data informs the schools when and where interventions are necessary.

Technology is a key player in this approach. It does more than relieve teachers of onerous paper-and-pencil practices and make performing assessments faster and more effective. Once school officials assess student progress, technology helps teachers get down to the business of teaching—and ultimately helping students boost their test scores.

Digging Into Data

Personalizing instruction has worked wonders at Adams 12 Five Star Schools (CO), where educators use their student information systems and assessment tools to drill down to a particular student’s weaknesses, to evaluate teaching methods and curriculum, and to apply new skills and technologies toimprove test scores.

“Several times throughout the year, we evaluate our student data and determine the best way to improve each student's achievement level,” says Superintendent Mike Paskewicz.“During the 2004-2005 school year, Five Star Schools mademore gains on the subsets of the state tests than any other districtin the Denver area.”

The district stores student data in a sophisticated data warehouse. The data contains detailed information such as reading scores sorted by grade level, gender, ethnicity, and education categories such as special ed and at-risk students. This information is then available to each school for the creation of its annual school improvement plan, which cites specific strategies to improve teaching and learning. “Teachers also monitor the data throughout the year,” Paskewicz says, “so they can modify their teaching strategies in very targeted ways to boost student achievement for specific classes and individual students.”

Five Star educators also use the data warehouse themselves. They go through intensive staff training to help them pinpoint specific areas where students need extra help. They then can analyze the data and talk with other staff to identify how to improve the student learning environment. For example, the data may indicate that a student or group of students had difficulty answering assessment questions that required a constructed response. With this information, teachers can modify their daily instruction to address that particular need.

Based on its own student data, Adams 12 Five Star Schools launched a math-improvement initiative. Significantly better scores on the state math test have resulted, including double-digit gains at some schools.

To address one such need, four years ago the district launched Everyday Math, a hands-on initiative that gives teachers new instructional math strategies based on the latest educational research. The program focuses on drills and memorization and tries to break down equations into a format that is easier for students to understand. For example, students tackle multidigit multiplication by learning to multiply the round numbers first. They learn 10 times 12 in three steps: 1) Multiply 10 x 10, which equals 100; 2) multiply 10 x 2, which equals 20; and 3) add 100 and 20, for a total of 120.

Students also learn to conceptualize numbers and relate them to everyday life. For example, students learn trigonometry principles by building a Ferris wheel. The hands-on approach is working. “We have seen significant overall growth on state math assessments,” says Five Star’s communications manager, Joe Ferdani. “And we attribute much of that growth to Everyday Math.”

The district also turned its attention to student test scores in English language proficiency, and decided to take a similar practical approach by integrating technology and software for reading and vocabulary into their teaching methods. In the most recent school year, the district focused its efforts on English Language Learners, piloting a reading and vocabulary program with the intention of gathering results and evaluating its success.

One program that educators used was Education World’s WebQuest, interactive software geared to vocabulary and phonics. WebQuest takes students on a virtual real-world experience and then asks them to write about it. It augments the writing experience with Storybook Weaver, a program made by The Learning Company that aims to inspire and motivate students to write and illustrate their own multimedia stories with an easyto- use word processor and a variety of graphic tools.

Getting Personal

California’s Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) offers another impressive example of the benefit of using individualized strategies. Once known mostly for its overflowing student population and outstanding teacher pay, the district recently has earned a reputation as one of the top academicperformers in the state.

Elk Grove evaluates student data via a sophisticated student information system called SISWeb. Data is gathered and manually loaded into the system. SISWeb houses student test results, parent information, medical data, emergency contacts, any special education needs, and more.

SISWeb limits access to the data it stores. The system assigns each student to the appropriate teacher, and only that teacher can access the student’s information. The teacher logs in and views student test scores in the broad areas, such as reading, writing, math, and science, and sees whether the scores are at the advanced, basic, or below-basic levels.

SISWeb also provides data that helps the district assess the progress made toward meeting its Bold Student Achievement Goals, an internal document in which Elk Grove lays out and quantifies its academic objectives. SISWeb automatically highlights particular curriculum deficiencies and prompts schools to address them by asking a series of questions about students’ academic strengths and weaknesses.

Teachers can then focus on those soft spots in the curriculum and differentiate instruction. “We customize information for teachers,” says Greg Lindner, director of technology services at EGUSD. “We take a very unique approach. It’s not cookie-cutter.”

Christine Hikido, director of research and evaluation, says,“We try to look at data and analyze it in different ways to understand the numbers and figure out how to apply the curriculum differently to change the outcomes.” Hikido understands that it’s just information; it won’t solve academic issues. If a teacher continues to have students scoring belowbasic on tests, then further efforts at individualized instruction are made. For example, if 10 students score below-basic in reading, the teacher breaks the class into separate groups and teaches right to the struggling group’s level.

Elk Grove also uses Riverdeep’s Edmark Reading Program, which teaches beginning reading and language development to nonreaders. Level 1 provides students with oneon- one teacher-to-student lessons. It teaches 150 words chosen from the Dolch word list and first-grade readers, as well as regular plural, tense, gerund endings, capitalization, and punctuation. Students catch on quickly to a process that teaches a word, introduces its meaning, provides comprehension practice, and uses the word in the context of a story. The program incorporates all learningmodalities into this instructional sequence.

If an Elk Grove teacher has tried these tactics and programs but continues to see below-basic test scores, the district is there to help. “We provide a support team made up of different members of the district to tailor programs to each school and each teacher’s need,” Hikido says. “We work with teachers to customize their instruction, provide them training, and generally give them the extra help that they require.”

Since implementing a customized assessement solution two years ago, Minneapolis Public Schools has seen the number of its schools failing to make AYP drop from 62 percent to 29 percent.

Part of this support involves professional coaching. The district sends a math, reading, or other subject-matter expert to the classroom to see how the teacher is using the curriculum (all teachers are expected to use the standard curriculum). The coach checks to ensure that the teacher understands, for example, Open Court, the district-sanctioned reading program from SRA/McGraw-Hill that uses word segmenting and blending to teach reading skills. The coach watches the teacher perform in the classroom for a period of time and comes back with suggestions or writes down a number of strategies.

All of these approaches were recently applied to Elk Grove’s Valley High School to address its weak student-achievement and Academic Performance Index numbers. Prior to 2005, Hikido says that Valley High had never met AYP. After working with the assessment data and receiving coaching in the various subject areas, the school is now reaching those targets.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

School officials are accountable for every school within the boundaries of the district; all must succeed. But a one-sizefits- all strategy doesn’t apply when a district has a diverse mix of schools, each with unique needs. So how do districts work toward the adoption of a uniform strategy that serves individual student needs?

Some use customized assessment applications provided by big ed tech companies, while others leverage homegrown systems that derive key data from student information systems.

Minneapolis Public Schools is one district that uses a customized assessment solution. MPS works with the Northwest Evaluation Association, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping all children learn. The NEA provides research-based educational growth measures, professional training, and consulting services to improve teaching and learning. The two groups have collaborated over the past 10 years on the Northwest Achievement Levels Test to measure yearly growth in reading and mathematics.

Surviving Accountability

READING AID: Orchard’s Skill Trees
target more than 3,000 key skills.

MPS emphasizes drilling down to details to find out how strong a footing a student has in a given subject. “We work with the NEA to measure students’ strengths and weaknesses,” says David Heistad, the district’s executive director of research, evaluation, and assessment. “We gather and upload information so teachers can check student progress. This also allows teachers to drill down to see specific skills within, say, geometry that the student has yet to master. It gives us a diagnostic tool that we can use at the beginning of the year to understand what to concentrate on, and then it shows steady progress throughout the year.”

Teams of teachers also gather to discuss individual student progress. They examine behavioral and academic problems and brainstorm solutions.

Attempted remedies are logged on a website, allowing the teachers to track what does and doesn’t work. By analyzing and tracking this information, the district can pinpoint where a student is struggling and prevent unnecessary, inappropriate referrals to special education.

The district’s professional development efforts extend into the summer, when it hosts learning institutes that focus on one subject at a time. During the sessions, teachers are split into small groups and discuss methods of differentiating instruction. They share ways to boost achievement, such as increasing student response times to teacher questions and performing frequent assessments to ensure that kids aren’t falling through the cracks.

“Some kids need extra practice, and we don’t want to accelerate instruction beyond their means,” says Heistad. “We also want to assess the situation to make sure we’re not teaching at remedial levels and [preventing] students from having the opportunity to excel.”

To provide observable examples of effective teaching, MPS began videotaping classroom instruction to demonstrate best practices that led to improved test scores. The district links these videos to its website, and teachers can log on to review activities and apply the same techniques in their classrooms. For example, if kindergarten language skills scores are low, the site would provide a link to a video showing rhyming activities and how to execute them in the classroom. “We’re trying to be proactive and help teachers try successful strategies,” explains Heistad.

The district’s assessment methods appear to be working. MPS has experienced significant improvement in meeting AYP in the last couple of years. “Initially, we had 62 percent of our schools not making AYP,” says Heistad. “Now, two years later, we are down to 29 percent, although we do have a number of schools one year off of not making AYP—and you have to be two years off the failing list for the federal government to forget past history.”

A ‘Different Breed of Students’

Rita Phillips, the ed tech coordinator for the Sacramento City Unified School District (CA), says it’s common for some schools to struggle with meeting AYP while others in the same district succeed. Figuring out the reasons why one school is failing while the other thrives is not as urgent as attending to the school that’s having problems. “It’s often very difficult to pinpoint the differences,” Phillips says, “but when a school fails to meet AYP, we start doing interventions.”

The district houses California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) information in a home-built database that allows principals and teachers to sort data by class, test scores, subjects, and areas of deficiency. Sacramento City is fully networked, with the database stored on a central server. Principals and teachers can log in to the database at any time from any computer to examine results for an entire class or one student.

Another of the district’s strategies invites parental involvement. Principals, teachers, and parents meet to discuss a student’s subpar test scores and examine potentially helpful changes to the curriculum and the child’s individual program.“We look at the whole picture with the parents and decidewhat will help students improve,” Phillips says.

Phillips believes multimedia applications must also play a role in instruction, to engage what she considers to be a “different breed of students. If it’s not video- or audio-oriented, it just doesn’t catch their attention. These kids are raised using cell phones, iPods, and computers. It has changed how they learn. So we’re trying to hit all different kinds of learning modalities—even if it’s as simple as teachers using a microphone in class to amplify their voices.”

At the elementary level, the district focuses on reading software. Teachers use Orchard, a program from the Siboney LearningGroup that covers morethan 3,000 essential skills which are aligned with most state andnational standardized tests. The software includes more than 150“Skill Trees” designed to build and reinforce key skills that aretaught in the classroom.

“We take the Open Court vocabulary and put it into the Orchard program,” says Phillips. “If test results show a child is struggling with reading, and the teacher isn’t effectively getting the information across, we put the child on the computerand focus on the [problematic] portion.”

Phillips, however, ends with a caveat. He says that analyzing test scores and coming up with creative curriculum will not increase student performance unless the student has a desire to learn. “We reinforce promoting that desire,” she says.“Nothing will work if the student doesn’t believe in himselfand knows he can do whatever he wants to do.”

::webextra:: For more on this topic, visit In theBrowse by Topic menu, click on Accountability/Assessment.

Michelle Gamble-Risley is a freelance writer who specializes in education, government, and technology.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.