As the schools nationwide seek best practices and increased student achievement, education professionals are sailing in uncharted territory in hopes of finding the silver bullet for transforming curriculum and boosting student achievement. Two Race to the Top school districts have turned to data collection and analysis to drive school reforms and tailor education methods to meet individual needs.

By amassing a wealth of data points regarding teacher performance and student achievement, these schools believe they are painting a clearer picture to look at when difficult decisions need to be made. By scrutinizing their data, these districts believe they are better equipped to address school reform and curriculum changes based on the individual needs of their staff and students..

School strategies for ADHD kidsWhen the 16 Race to the Top-District victors were announced in December 2012, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed, “Now these winners can empower their school leaders to pursue innovative ideas where they have the greatest impact: in the classroom.” He backed up his statement with nearly $400 million in awards to be spent over the next four years to demonstrate how the districts could personalize education for each student in their schools, one of the core goals of RTT-D.

Two of the winning districts are about as different as they could be. Lindsay Unified‘s eight schools and 4,100 students are located in California’s agriculture-heavy Central Valley. Charleston County, with 80 schools and 46,000 students, is the second largest school system in South Carolina, representing urban, suburban, and rural districts covering 1,000 square miles of coastal land. But the two districts do share three characteristics. Both have faced considerable challenges in dealing with low performance. Both are pursuing school reform through–as Charleston puts it–“instructional excellence and technology.” And both believe their future success requires effective tracking of data related to student and teacher performance.

Tracking Learner Data at Lindsay
Lindsay’s reform program had its start in 2007, when the district began working with Marzano Research Laboratory and the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC). Superintendent Tom Rooney bought into the vision that students (“learners” in district vernacular) learned at their own pace and had to take ownership of their learning–the basis of a personalized education. In this scenario, keeping track of progress goes way beyond entering the occasional formative assessment grade into a gradebook. Instead the teachers (“learning facilitators”) must capture continual snapshots of learners’ progress.

In the early days of student data tracking, the only real technology was “paper and pencil,” says RISC cofounder Rick Schreiber. As a teacher two decades ago, he recalls, “I had a big file cabinet, and within that file cabinet, for each student I had 10 manila folders. And each of those folders represented the 10 content areas where we had standards and assessments which were connected to the report card. That’s how we kept track of where students were with their learning. At least that was my strategy.”

Now, thankfully, much of that tedious data management is automated. Lindsay uses Educate from ThreeShapes, an “electronic progress monitoring system,” as Rooney describes it, that also provides the foundation of the district’s data tracking plans.

In the past, says Rooney, a mark of zero in the gradebook typically meant the student hadn’t successfully done a particular activity. But in personalized learning that’s not really an accurate assessment. After all, if a student has taken even the smallest step toward a learning goal, a zero doesn’t reflect the current state.

“When we redid our grading system, we eliminated A through F grades, we eliminated averaging, we eliminated the zero score. They don’t make sense when you’re trying to really determine if a learner knows the knowledge or not, and what parts of the knowledge they know and what parts they don’t know. We ended up with Educate because the company really embraced and understands performance-based education.”

Continue Reading: Inside the Data-Tracking RttT-D Projects That Won Millions

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