Testing data benefits schools

Information lets teachers tailor class to kids' needs

October 08, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun reporter

Elementary school teacher Thea Bayly said she has always had a good sense of which kids in her classes could use more help. Now she can identify the kind of assistance they need.

With her students last year, Bayly found out, she needed to weave geometry into her math lessons earlier. This term, with her fourth-graders, the Carroll County teacher can better plot out the year and cater to her new charges. And she can do it because of information within easy - and electronic - reach.

Public school systems, required to administer high-stakes standardized tests under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other reforms, are seeking ways to make the reams of test results they collect meaningful for the classroom. Some have turned to technology, providing Bayly and other educators with tools to translate the often mind-numbing numbers from state and local test scores into effective teaching methods, tailored to their classes and students.

"We're kind of at the beginning of a new age in the way we can look at student information," said Gary Dunkleberger, Carroll's coordinator of special projects. During sessions this summer, Dunkleberger showed teachers throughout the county the computer-crunched information at their disposal.

"The culture in schools is so different now than it was two or three years ago," said Duane Arbogast, Anne Arundel County schools' senior manager of accountability. "Everybody's talking about data. ... It's much more focused now."

That focus extends to the state, and even national, level.

A new bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York supports developing statewide systems that help track student progress over time, with the goal of enhancing teaching and promoting student-specific instruction, and achievement. Called the Better Data Act of 2007, it would allow states to apply for five-year grants to design or build on existing statistic storehouses.

In Maryland, school districts have taken steps toward marshaling data to construct their own storehouses - and are using them to help students gain skills.

While No Child Left Behind and the need to monitor student progress have sped along the building process, plans for such a system have long been in the making, said Gregory Bricca, Carroll's director of research and accountability.

"We've talked about monitoring tools for over 10 years," Bricca said. "But certainly [the federal law] has heightened the need and the desire to make sure that it's happening."

The result has been to give teachers more insight into their students, allowing for lessons that respond to distinctive classes - as opposed to a "one size fits all" education that parents and educators often complain is a consequence of standardized testing.

"When you get the data down to the individual child level, that's when it's powerful," said Pam Meyers, principal of Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster.

At Robert Moton, teachers put recently released Maryland School Assessment results to use, Meyers said, planning for their summer school students.

"There's a number, but there's a student behind the number, and there's a story behind the student," Meyers said.

Meyers and her teachers saw the stories this summer with the help of the Advanced Reporting Tool, an in-house, Web-based application that presents a detailed profile right down to individual students, classes, grade levels. It pools every snippet of pupil information available, such as state and local test results, attendance records, educational background or course grades.

"This kind of blows teachers out of the water," Dunkleberger said during a school board presentation this year. "They had this information before ... but now it's at the click of a button."

Teachers can go deeper into the test results. Math scores break down into subscores, showing how students fared in geometry and measurement, algebra, statistics and probability or processes of math.

Such detail guides teachers, suggesting where they might invest their energy, Dunkleberger said.

They also can compare their students' performance to other classes and schools - without seeing the specific names of students and instructors outside their own school, said Tim Kulp, Carroll County school district's software engineer who designed the reporting tool.

A similar move to data-driven decision-making is under way in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties.

Arbogast and other staff conducted summer training sessions on Maryland School Assessment data for Anne Arundel administrators and teachers. The sessions introduced them to Scantron, a program rolled out last fall that, like Carroll's reporting tool, can display patterns in each subject area and highlight how individual students are doing.

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