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AZ: Students tracking their own data make gains

Verrado Middle School students track their own test scores and set goals for improvement. (Photo courtesy of Litchfield Elementary School District.)

 

 

 

Verrado Middle School, located in Litchfield Elementary School District Buckeye, Arizona, has breathed new life into the interpretation and use of student test data by including students as important end users of the results. Through the Student Data  Portfolio (SDP) project, students don’t just take tests, receive grades or standardized test scores, and forget about them. They learn how to understand, reflect on, and use the data to set personal goals – and more and more of them are meeting those goals.

In 2005, Verrado Middle School teachers and administrators had an “Aha!” moment when they realized that everyone except students analyzed, interpreted, and used student data. To rectify the problem, they introduced the Student Data Portfolio to help students track and understand their scores.

Dr. Heather Cruz, now Deputy Superintendent of Peoria Unified School District (AZ), was Verrado’s principal during the initial phases of SDP development. “Too often,” she says, “students take tests and are presented with the results in isolation. They know they’re important, but not why. SDP allows students to link test results and grades to what they’re learning in the classroom, set goals for the future, and create pathways to achieve those goals.”

How It Works

District Characteristics
Name: Litchfield Elementary School District
State: Arizona
Type: Rural
Grades: K-8
Enrollment: 10,256
Students per teacher: 21.5

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: n/a
English language learners: 3.5%
Students with disabilities: 12.5%
White: 49.8%
Black: 9.8%
Hispanic: 3.3%
Asian: 5.4%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.1%
Other: .5%
Source: Litchfield Elementary School District

At the beginning of the school year, each student receives a personalized binder with his or her Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards’ (AIMS) scores and all necessary SDP forms, such as sheets for goals, journal entries, and graphs. The Student Data Portfolio travels with students from 6th to 8th grade, with new worksheets being added each year. Students end up with an important visual record of their goals and achievements from year to year.

Every Wednesday, during the Advisor/Advisee homeroom period, teachers present a prepared lesson about the Student Data Portfolio that focuses on a particular topic, such as goal setting or calculating grade point average. “We script the lessons so that teachers can easily prompt students to think closely about what they’re doing and why. For example, if a student isn’t doing well in a subject, a teacher might ask: ‘What could you do to achieve a better result? What happened this week that might have affected the outcome?’” says Bernadette Fain, a language arts teacher who helps coordinate the SDP program. Current Verrado principal, Kimberly Franz, notes, “The lessons are short – 20 minutes – simple, and chunked so that they work well for all students, including English language [learners] and special education students.”

During the weekly session, students track their grades, attendance, and behavior in all academic classes. SDP portfolio activities include graphing their classroom grades, setting quarterly goals and strategies for achieving them, and writing reflections about their progress. Students also set specific reading, math, writing, and science goals for their district benchmark and AIMS assessments. At the end of the year, students identify their successes and challenges.

“It’s not enough for a student to say ‘I want to do better in math,’” says Fain. “An acceptable goal would be: ‘I want to raise my grade by a letter by the end of the year, or I want to achieve a certain percentage on an AIMS test score.’” Students also must define the steps they will take to achieve that goal, such as spending additional study time, seeking tutoring, or paying more attention in class. “The emphasis of SDP is not on the test scores or grades per se, but on improvement and ways to achieve it,” notes Cruz. Weekly objectives posted by each classroom teacher on the board make it easy for students to relate their SDP goals to classroom content. Although the SDP is not yet mandated for district-wide use, 13 elementary and middle schools in the district have also incorporated the SDP in some form as part of their curriculum, according to Cruz. 

About SDP Lessons

How It Evolved

Like the students themselves, the faculty behind the Student Data Portfolio worked to improve its efficacy. “In the beginning, we were just looking at AIMS test scores in reading, writing, and math. Eight to ten teachers who volunteered for the project began to help their students graph their individual scores on a sheet of paper, learn to interpret the results, and set goals for improvement,” says Cruz.

As the project evolved, those single sheets of paper transformed into individualized student binders with forms for tracking grades, state and district assessment scores, behavior, attendance, and lateness. “Over time, we added elements such as goal setting, strategies for improvement, reflection, dialogue, and journal entries as essential parts of the SDP to connect it more deeply to the learning process,” notes Caren Walker. Now principal at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School, Walker was a former Verrado assistant principal and science teacher who helped coordinate the SDP program in its early phases.

In 2008, Cruz and Walker decided that more comprehensive lesson plans needed to be part of the picture. They recruited language arts teacher Bernadette Fain and literature/reading specialist Meredith Noce to develop and refine an annual set of SDP lesson plans for teachers. “Prepared lesson plans add consistency and structure to the program,” says Cruz. “They also make it easier for busy teachers to implement SDP because all the lesson scripts, objectives, and materials needed are laid out for them.”

According to Fain and Noce, the following new elements will soon be introduced to the SDP program:

  • Analysis and implementation of methods to quantify SDP success, including correlation between SDP and standardized tests
  • Continued differentiation of lesson plans by grade level
  • Inclusion of supplemental resource materials for English language learners and special education students
  • Inclusion of a monthly SDP goal in all students’ weekly Responsibility Card, which parents sign
  • Mentoring of new teachers to the school and more outreach to parents

Although SDP lessons are scripted, there is plenty of room for creativity. As a mathematics teacher, Franz introduced “Sticky Talk,” a system of using Post-It notes with anonymous student comments to stimulate conversation on topics such as what it means to be a good student. When another teacher introduced a huge red bull’s eye to chart students’ progress toward their academic, social, behavioral, and attendance goals, students responded so enthusiastically that other teachers adopted it for their classrooms as a visual aid.

“Almost anything can be incorporated into an SDP lesson, such as a skit or a short video. We’re always looking for new ways to keep the lesson fresh for the teachers and interesting to the students by relating it to their daily lives and their futures. For example, we’ve written lesson plans about celebrities who have learning challenges,” says Fain. When she was developing SDP lessons for 8th graders, Walker drew on students’ interest in getting a driver’s license and a job as examples of how tests are important beyond the classroom.

“Through the lessons, we are always trying to get the students to look ahead. Even in 6th grade, we’re asking students to think about high school and college and about why their goals, grades, and test scores are important to their futures,” says literature/reading specialist Meredith Noce who, until her recent move to Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School, helped coordinate the Verrado SDP program.

Supporting SDP

To be successful, SDP requires consistent and regular communication among all participants. At Verrado, methods include:

  • Distributing lesson plans for discussion before they need to be presented in the classroom
  • Sending weekly e-mails about the materials needed for the lesson
  • Including SDP as a topic at weekly teacher team meetings
  • Modeling lessons in the classroom for teachers so that they can talk to students about successes and failures
  • Conducting an end-of-the-year survey and getting other regular feedback from teachers
  • Meeting regularly with the principal about SDP progress and needs

“Having a set time and day each week when all students are engaged in the SDP process gives us an opportunity to stop by the classroom, observe the process in action, and chat with students about how they are doing,” says Fain. This regular walk-through often includes the principal, and, on occasion, the superintendent and school board members. The visible support from everyone is key to the success of the program.

Evaluating SDP

Although the direct impact of SDP on grades and test scores has yet to be formally correlated, students’ AIMS scores have shown overall positive growth since the school opened in 2004. The school’s AZ Learns Achievement Profile has recently been raised from Highly Performing to Excelling, the highest category.

The most important change, by all accounts, is in the students themselves. Cruz, who wrote her dissertation on student perception and motivation related to the SDP, says: “Our last student survey showed that 85% of them found SDP to be a positive activity that helped them to gain more control over their education. When students feel like school isn’t just something that happens to them, but is something over which they have some control, it creates motivation for them to do better.”

One sixth-grader’s comments about SDP mirrors this sentiment. “I feel like SDPs are tools to help with our learning. We make goals that we are in charge of doing. Our teachers don’t just say: ‘You need to make a goal in: ‘blah, blah’; we get to make our own goals. I love the way it makes me feel more organized with my grades and benchmark scores.”

For teachers, the biggest satisfaction comes when they see the change SDP makes in students’ accountability and responsibility. “To see the light go off in a student’s head when he understands that there’s a connection between doing better on a test, his behavior, and level of effort is just incredible,” says Noce.

Lessons Learned
1. Introduce the concept slowly. “Teachers’ buy-in to the SDP process is critical to its success,” says Franz. “The way that teachers present the SDP and its importance affects how seriously students take the project. The more the teacher has embraced the project, the more likely students are to also respond to it with enthusiasm.”
2. Make SDP easy for teachers to implement. “Having well-thought-out lesson plans that are totally scripted has been key to the success of SDP,” says Cruz. Noce seconds this observation: “Teachers have a more positive attitude toward SDP when they see that the lesson plans have been prepared and that support is readily available.” Having a defined time and day when everyone works on the portfolio also roots the program firmly into the regular curriculum.
3. Put together a dedicated team to sustain the project. “The Student Data Portfolio requires several point people who have the necessary conviction and perseverance to implement it and keep it going. You have to believe that it is good for the students and work in true partnership with teachers to make it happen,” says Walker.
4. Find a way to reward project point people. In the Litchfield Elementary School District, teachers who write the SDP lesson plans do so as part of a Teacher Leader Project, the highest level of the district’s career ladder that carries performance pay at the end of the year. “Every school district has some way to reward teachers for extra effort,” says Cruz. “This project virtually costs nothing except human capital and time so every school can undertake it.”
5. Secure the support of your school administration. “Having the visible support of the school principal is crucial to the success of the project,” says Bernadette Fain. “When the principal regularly does a walk-through on Wednesdays and asks questions about SDP activities or meets with the teacher teams to discuss the project, it shows that you’re all in it together.”
6. Be organized and don’t underestimate the logistical support required. All SDP materials, including AIMS results and lesson plans, must be organized and ready to distribute to teachers and students at the busiest time of the school year, the first week of school. Additional packets of materials also need to be readily available to teachers as new students join the class. “This is a project that needs to be frontloaded,” says Cruz. “It’s time consuming and a lot of copying, but it’s worth the effort.”
7. Be flexible. Walker advises, “This project that requires that you find what works best for your students and teachers. You might have a plan when you start out, but it’s okay that the SDP morphs and changes from what you originally thought it would be. Because it is flexible and creative, SDP can be tailored for the particular needs of students at any school.”

Contact:
Kimberly Franz, Principal
Verrado Middle School
20880 W. Main Street
Buckeye, AZ 85396
(623) 547-1300
franz@lesd.k12.az.us

Anne Donahue, Community Liaison
donahuea@lesd.k12.az.us
(623) 535-6047


Published July 2011. Copyright Center for Public Education.

This article was written by Susan Stafford, Ph.D.  Stafford, a freelance writer and anthropologist from Alexandria, Va., is the author of Community College: Is It Right for You?, published in June 2006.

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