Most educators today probably would balk at the mention of more testing, but when results from interim assessments are used to tweak the curriculum and applied to individual learning, schools often see gains.
Data-driven instruction has gone from an ideal to a way of life in many districts within a few short years.
Spurred in part by the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, administrators are searching for better and faster ways to collect and distill data. They are finding that when they do that, they see progress.
"Over the past two to three years, there has been a marked increase in interest among districts in using data to inform instruction," according to Tim Conroy, executive vice president and general manager of the K-12 Services Division of The Princeton Review. "Obviously, NCLB and the rise in local assessments have something to do with that.
"[But] testing kids without taking meaningful action is pointless and tiring. Coming in and working with assessments, and then following up with professional development with staff members, really resonates and shows a marked improvement in student instruction."
New software and interactive programs allow for more interim testing that can better assess a student's skills and weaknesses and be used to shape curriculum.
"If you are just testing for testing's sake, what the point?" Conroy added. "Find the students, assess where they are, and adjust to what they need."
That approach, combined with some re-organization and new faculty, led to improvements at Sun Valley Middle School in Sun Valley, California. "Data-driven instruction drives everything we do," said Jeffrey Davis, Sun Valley's principal. The school was restructured in 2002 when Davis arrived because of low performance. "We've analyzed our data down to each kid's needs. We're looking at different departments and classes. We're trying to figure out why some kids don't get it."
Studying and applying data, as well as dividing the school into houses for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and using a team-teaching approach, helped the school climb back from a low ranking.
"We made adequate yearly progress (AYP) in language arts this year," Davis said. "We've also improved in math, and it's all data-driven. We want to focus on kids who are very close to moving up [to the next level.]"
The school worked with The Princeton Review, which provided a program that stressed math and language arts instruction and test-taking strategies. That program was offered on Saturday mornings to sixth and eighth graders; those are the grade levels at which students take state tests.
"That personal little extra attention helps," Davis told Education World. "If you are looking at data and looking at it correctly, you are helping every kid every day."
Peter Noonan, currently the principal of Centreville High School in Union, Virginia, said he used a Princeton Review Web-based program last year when he was principal of Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia. That program enabled staff members to compare school curriculum with the content for the state's Standards of Learning tests.
"This pointed out what did and didn't correlate, and pointed out where we had to do more," Noonan told Education World. "It provided us with an opportunity to see how students were progressing through the content. You could see with which aspect of the content they had a problem. We also could advance kids who already knew the content."
Reviewing the data as a staff also gave teachers a chance to share strategies, Noonan added.
Getting test results quickly also has been a breakthrough for data-driven instruction, said Princeton Review's Conroy. "We can turn around some tests in two to three days," he said. "Getting a test back at the end of year is like using a five-year-old globe."
Consultants such as Tony Abernathy also work with teachers directly in the classroom, as well as provide professional development to schools. Abernathy, a former principal, assistant principal, and teacher, now works as a math consultant for Princeton Review in several schools in the Bronx, N.Y.
"I look at state and city testing," Abernathy said. "Data-driven assistance is based on the needs of classes and students. I help teachers model and help out in classrooms. Sometimes I work with individual students."
Technicians and support personnel from Princeton Review provide support by developing tools and procedures to enhance data driven instruction.
Too often educators view testing as a nuisance, and not as a tool, he added. "A lot of educators complain about the test, give the test, and the data goes into a drawer," according to Abernathy. "If you are not using the data in the right way, you are just going through the motions of testing. It should work. The key is not just giving tests, but using tests."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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