Analysis: How Districts Are Trading Traditional Test Scores for Real-Time Data That Can Truly Help Students Improve

As students return to learning this fall, they are going back in a variety of ways — in person, online or in some combination. This is creating issues for collecting and using education data consistently.

While this is a challenge, it also presents an immense, and overdue, opportunity to move away from data like standardized testing, which is a lagging and incomplete measure. How do standardized test results, received after a child has moved on to the next grade, help teachers actively improve student learning?

Instead, educators need short-cycle, real-time data that provide insights for teachers to continuously improve learning opportunities for each and every child. Data that provide a look at what a child is currently experiencing can support an individualized approach in which teachers and students have the tools when they need them. This way, challenges and opportunities can be addressed as they arise, not the following year.

How can school districts start to make this change?

First, apply the method of continuous improvement, used in other industries, to bridge the gap between gathering data and using it to change the way teaching happens.

Continuous improvement is a problem-solving science. It’s about taking big goals and breaking them down into small ones that are frequently evaluated and course-corrected when necessary.

With many schools shifting to remote learning, teachers are moving away from diagnostic testing as a way of assessing strengths, weaknesses, knowledge and skills, and instead are looking at past trends and essential skills to track students' ability to meet expectations. Schools applying continuous improvement gather student performance data in real time, enabling teachers to adjust quickly to meet instructional needs.

This method is successfully being applied to benefit students around the country. For example, when the Spartanburg County, South Carolina, school district adopted a continuous improvement model, it brought in coaches to train and support teachers in the method; designed short-cycle assessments that happen every five to 10 days to allow for constant attention to what is working well for students; and changed instructional strategies accordingly. This has resulted in significant progress across four schools, including a 60 percent increase in third-grade reading proficiency from 2018 to 2019. In 2018, there were 346 students in the cohort; in 2019, there were 273. This important work was initiated by the Spartanburg Academic Movement, one of nearly 70 communities that make up our Cradle to Career Network. StriveTogether invests in network members' efforts to improve racial equity and economic mobility, including providing grants and technical assistance. StriveTogether worked directly with Spartanburg Academic Movement and district schools to implement continuous improvement.

Another example is looking at Federal Communications Commission data on broadband access to help identify where digital divides exist in communities. This can be helpful as school districts make challenging decisions about what virtual learning will look like. In Minnesota and Oklahoma, StriveTogether communities have created heat maps based on FCC data to see digital gaps in real time and address them. When schools closed in Northfield, Minnesota, Northfield Promise focused on students at risk of falling behind. Partnering with the local school district, Northfield Promise used Tableau, a visual analytics program, to create a map of students without internet access as well as neighborhoods with high concentrations of families living in poverty. With data at their fingertips, school staff targeted outreach to assist students. In Oklahoma, ImpactTulsa created internet access maps using census tracts. The maps revealed significant inequities in communities of color and those experiencing poverty. Local school districts used the data to make education accessible to all students. The data was also used to convince the local cable provider to lower internet fees and automatically enroll eligible households.

Second, districts can make use of qualitative data. For example, the E3 Alliance in Central Texas is working with districts to integrate qualitative data into regular practices. By listening to parents and students describe their challenges, school districts gain valuable insights to shape virtual learning policies and investments.

Finally, they can take a holistic view of their students, drawing from multiple agencies to ensure that schools can get to the root causes of issues like lagging literacy levels and absenteeism. This is how place-based partnerships work.

Attention to equity issues, poverty and race is essential. The linkages among race, poverty and academic outcomes are evident. We help our network members use the data they have in this moment to shed light on the systemic challenges that create inequitable results.

This crisis creates a real opportunity to use data differently to determine best practices moving forward. I encourage educators to build the capability to access real-time data and use it to create more equitable systems to get better outcomes for students. We cannot return to the woefully lacking status quo.

Jennifer Blatz is president and CEO of StriveTogether, a nonprofit working to transform failing systems with a collaborative improvement methodology that directs data from small changes to inform adjustments in the community. For two decades, she has designed, developed and implemented strategies that drive large-scale community improvement through partnership with local leaders and organizations.

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