In December of 2012 Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, announced 16 schools as winners and recipients of Race To The Top Funding. “Now these winners can empower their school leaders to pursue innovative ideas where they have the greatest impact: in the classroom.” With nearly $400 million in funding awarded, these schools have ample monies to enact critical reform.

While each of the schools are innovative and recognized as leaders in education reform, no two schools are alike. Really, one of the only parallels that can be drawn is their reliance on scientific data to drive school and curriculum reform in the effort to improver overall student achievement. 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.”

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