Growth Data: Answerability for Continuous Improvement


Imagine the school board has established these criteria for the superintendent’s next performance evaluation. Next June the board members want to know:

• How much did students in our district learn this year?

• At what levels were students performing in reading, language arts, math and science when they started and how have they grown over the course of the year? How are our students advancing compared to other students in the country, given similar demographics?

• In which schools are students experiencing the greatest gains in achievement? Are all subgroups of students demonstrating adequate growth? Are student achievement gains visible in every classroom, in each grade level, in every school?

• Which curricular programs or instructional methods appear to be yielding the greatest return on investment in terms of growth in student achievement? Include Title I, special needs and other pull-out programs in your analyses of results.

In the past, it would have been difficult, if not unfeasible, to ascertain real-time answers to these questions, but now, thanks to new technologies, such as computerized adaptive assessments that measure and instantly analyze how much student growth is occurring for every student during each quarter, superintendents can address these concerns with confidence.

A Changed Conversation
A decade ago, Horry County Schools, a district of approximately 36,000 students located on the coast of South Carolina, became mired in the arduous tasks of defining “world-class” standards, constructing assessment items and personalizing instruction for each student. Teachers felt overburdened with developing, administering and scoring benchmark assessments and developing a system to organize and deliver personalized learning plans for every student.

Then, five years ago, Horry County partnered with the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit organization that aligns district or state learning skills and performance objectives with a computer adaptive assessment system. Within minutes of a student completing a test, the classroom teacher electronically receives a diagnostic analysis that tracks the amount of growth the child has attained during the previous quarter. NWEA has embedded its assessments into the curriculum so that when a teacher double-clicks on a student’s name, he or she can instantly access an individualized learning plan for the following nine weeks, including the performance standards this child has mastered plus the specific skills and concepts the child needs to learn next.

Through this new sophisticated monitoring system, we acquired the means to measure and analyze growth, to engage all educators in richer, deeper, more focused data discussions, to personalize instructional delivery and to instill a sense of responsibility for student success among everyone in the school system.

School Usage
As a result of growth data, teachers and principals are thinking differently about their work. After each assessment, they review the performance of individuals, classes and grade levels of students to analyze patterns of growth and make decisions about which approaches are most effectively advancing students.

At the elementary level, several schools decided to split mathematics and/or language arts education into two time periods. One period focuses on teaching curriculum stand-ards at grade level to meet state assessment requirements; a second period is set aside for students to be grouped according to proficiency level versus age or grade level. This process assures students receive instruction in math and language arts that delivers both the state-mandated grade-level standards and instruction tailored to each child’s current level of performance.

In many cases all certified personnel in the school teach a group of students during the second, personalized instructional period to reduce pupil/teacher ratios. This customized distribution of resources around student needs has resulted in impressive achievement gains.

At the secondary level, a defining moment came while teachers were reviewing assessment data for Algebra I students. They determined that all students, especially those at risk of failing, would benefit from a more flexible use of time, so they increased the number of sections of Algebra I offered during a designated time block, thus allowing students to be regrouped frequently so they could move through the curriculum as they mastered essential concepts and skills. They also provided targeted support to students who needed it.

These types of thoughtful, innovative responses to identified student needs are not yet universally implemented in Horry County schools, but they provide a model for being systemically “answerable” for student success. The conversations about student growth data represent a partnership of mutual responsibility for student, school and district success. Leaders must remove barriers and provide support to help implement plans schools have crafted in response to identified student needs.

Leaders’ Answers
Not only do teachers and their students benefit from timely access to growth data, but principals also gain a better picture of where and how students are performing in their schools. Within 72 hours of student assessment, NWEA provides administrators thorough analyses of growth at the individual, class, school and district levels. The data can be easily aggregated and disaggregated around many factors, providing leaders a basis to see growth of different subgroups of students in different classroom settings.

At the school level, faculty members meet with principals in Horry County periodically during the year to review data they have gathered concerning student learning that has occurred in their classes. By examining data showing student growth during a quarter or semester, principals and teachers can spot patterns and identify troubling trends, using the information they’ve gleaned to make real-time, strategic modifications as needed.

Principals meet individually with the superintendent at least three times a year to summarize what they’ve learned about student growth in their schools during the past quarter. Probing questions such as these are provided in advance of the conference: Review the evidence that shows that every student in your school experienced growth in academic achievement during the past nine weeks. What approach seemed to produce the greatest learning? Where are your greatest concerns, and how do you plan to address them? How can the district help?

Return on Investment
District staff in Horry County view their primary work as helping schools remove barriers that impede success for every child. Staff members in each department have accurate data to determine the extent to which their operations contribute to student success. Through the use of growth data, directors of specialized programs that provide targeted assistance to students determine the impact of their interventions on student achievement. We can parse out the gains of students who participated in specific instructional or curricular approaches in order to help determine the return on investment with respect to the funds expended for products, services or personnel.

District administrators also use the growth analysis tools to discern patterns of widely varying rates of growth from site to site. Sometimes the data reveal that schools previously thought to be high performing are actually producing far less growth for students than schools with more challenging circumstances.

In addition, a unique feature of the MAP assessment program allows our district to determine whether our students are performing compared to similar children nationally. NWEA is able to create “virtual comparison bases” that tell us whether our students are faring as well as their counterparts in other areas of the country.

Although the work is complicated and complex, the school district is committed to building a system that accepts responsibility for the continual progress of all students, for helping lower-performing students achieve more while at the same time making sure all students’ needs are being met at every level.
Growth data enable educators at the local level to engage in conversations, reflections and actions that represent a partnership of mutual responsibility — answerability for the success of all students.

Gerrita Postlewait is a superintendent in residence with the Stupski Foundation, 2 Belvedere Place, Mill Valley, CA 94941 E-mail: She served as superintendent in Horry County, S.C., for 10 years.