The Power of Small Data

In order to deliver personalized education, districts have to gather and share students’ statistics. Here’s how the strategic use of data can boost teaching and learning.

When it seems like every week brings news of a massive theft of consumers’ private information, “data” is in danger of becoming a four-letter word. But if districts want to provide truly personalized education, gathering and sharing certain types of student data is absolutely necessary. According to Patricia Cotter, a veteran entrepreneur who recently completed her doctorate in work-based learning at the University of Pennsylvania, “Recent technologies like big data, the Internet of Things, mobile apps and improved storage have made it possible to acquire, combine, store, analyze, interpret and report findings during any phase of data management.”

Taking a break from the business world, Cotter has recently trained her keen eye on education, where she said she sees a renaissance in data collection “The data repositories residing in disconnected, fragmented departments with little sharing have now been transformed into centralized, interrelated data systems to enable fast and efficient retrieval of interrelated data for quick and informed decision-making,” she said. Here are some examples of how getting the right information to the right people at the right time can inspire teachers and students to do their best work.

Instant Feedback for Students and Parents
Classrooms usually have a wide range of academic levels, and nowhere is that more true than combination classes such as the one headed by Lisa Wilson, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Arroyo Seco Elementary School in Livermore, CA. With two grade levels in the same room, Wilson individualizes the mathematics curriculum using TenMarks Math, which allows her to customize assignments for each student.

Students use the TenMarks online tool, which is essentially an interactive workbook. Wilson, a 24-year teaching veteran and technology lead teacher at her school, explained, “I get percentages and scores on the different standards they work on.” She can see which students are not passing a given standard, “then I pull those students for intervention that same day.”

The crucial element of timeliness makes it easier for Wilson to avoid the slow “fall through the cracks” that affects so many students. “They work in the morning, and I check scores at recess,” she said. “After lunch I know who I need to work with in a small group. It used to be you would only know after you gave the test and you were onto something else, and you would never catch those kids. Since I’ve been using TenMarks — only since January 2015 — the number of my kids failing the math test has gone way down.”

For intense practice in math facts, Wilson points her students toward XTraMath, a Web program that tracks proficiency in basic facts. For example, if students keep missing “9 times 7” or “6 times 8,” they get those every other problem, and if they don’t get the answer correct within a few seconds, the program will put the answer in grey scale so students have to type it in and learn it. The program provides instant feedback, and Wilson keeps a close eye on the data, making a point to know where her students are with math facts.

Spelling City and Moby Max help Wilson to track spelling and vocabulary, and to collect the most familiar bits of data: grades. “My students take online spelling tests now on Spelling City, and they wear headphones,” said Wilson. “I can give students different spelling lists, and they do it on Chromebooks. Spelling City corrects the tests and sends me the scores.”

School Loop helps tie it all together by allowing Wilson to tell parents how their kids are doing in real time. Wilson explained, “It’s an electronic grade book, and parents can see the grades. They can get a daily e-mail of how their child is doing. That cuts down a lot on questions, because it’s all listed.” And, she added, “It tells parents all the things their child did not do.”

Wilson’s focus on using formative assessments to monitor students on an ongoing basis so that she can and address problems immediately represents an ideal in many districts. Consistent use of formative methods has been difficult in the past, but districts around the country are eagerly scooping up new technological approaches in an effort to make it a reality.

Formative Assessments That ‘Help Students Grow
In forward-looking districts such as Richland County School District Two (SC), Superintendent Debra W. Hamm is working hard to promote skilled use of formative assessment and real-time data for decision-making. “We are also encouraging teachers to think beyond just assessment data,” said Hamm, “and to think of various sources of evidence of student success.”

Winners of THE Journal’s 10th annual Sylvia Charp Award for district innovation in technology, Richland Two also uses the traditional data-gathering tools, such as the NWEA and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments, at least twice a year. “This gives us a good idea of student performance, as well as growth,” said Hamm. “The reports and resources that come with it help teachers identify students who need assistance, determine skills that are already mastered and identify logical next skills to teach.”

Hamm sets the tone for the positive use of data through a commitment to continuing education throughout the district. “We provide professional development for our teachers that combines knowledge of formative assessment with knowledge of the digital tools,” she enthused. “We expect teachers to use formative assessment to monitor individual student progress…. Among the digital tools we recommend are Google Forms with Flubaroo, Geddit, Socrative and Kahoot.”

According to Philip D. Lanoue, the superintendent of Clarke County School District in Athens, GA, the challenge when it comes to student data “is how do you make sense of all this data when there is so much of it.” And, he added, “Data has to constantly be formative, meaning it helps students to grow.”

Using data for real-time progress monitoring and personalized learning is a major focus in Clarke County, and district leaders use technology such as Waggle to help make it happen. “Waggle monitors performance based on practice,” said Lanoue. “Kids get asked questions in a whole bunch of ways, and if they start getting them [answers] wrong in different ways, their proficiency monitor decreases…. Our new personalized learning model is moving to this one. If we can create tools that monitor kids on an ongoing basis around proficiency, then I don’t have to worry about pre- and post-test. I’m just going to look at progress.”

As a teacher who works with students with disabilities, Deborah L. Spence said she finds that data collection is most beneficial for reading and math. “Through the use of the ALEKS math program, our Response to Intervention team was able to identify the lowest-achieving students, then provide appropriately leveled instruction,” said Spence, an intervention specialist in the Autism Unit at Reynoldsburg City Schools (OH). “The program also allows students to track their progress, parents to monitor content and teachers to identify specific areas of weakness to design individualized interventions.”

In the Las Cruces Public School System (NM), Arsenio Romero also boosted reading through a program called JUMP (Joint Ungraded Multiage Primary), a framework for personalized learning in daily instruction. “Because individualized and differentiated instruction was to be the norm for each student in JUMP, I purchased Lexia Reading,” said Romero, now assistant superintendent for assessment and turnaround at Roswell Independent School District (NM). “This past year, the school — as well as the entire district — migrated to Lexia Reading Core5.”

Lexia Reading provides what Romero called, “the right balance of personalized learning that is driven by a student’s ability with teacher-led instruction — all designed around the charts of data and action plans that tell us what children need, when they need it and for how long…We mandated that our teachers log into the data reports on a daily basis, not just to view what lessons their students were on, but more precisely, to look at the big picture and take a deep dive into every detail that the program shares.”

Using Data To Connect People
For Scott J. Iler, assistant principal at Monrovia High School (CA), mining for valuable data is a multi-pronged effort using School Loop, Illuminate and Aeries — all of which help to form a complete picture of student performance.

According to Iler, Illuminate provides a snapshot of what students have done in their benchmark tests. “A teacher will make an assessment, and it will have all the different Common Core strands,” he explained. “Illuminate breaks down successes and failures in each strand by student and by class. That helps teachers pinpoint their teaching or re-teaching. We use Aeries to store the demographics of our students: contacts, discipline, counseling, interventions and their grades in a digital cumulative file.”

Every student at Monrovia High School is signed up in School Loop, and information uploaded to Aeries eventually rolls over to School Loop. Iler uses the program to track student progress for purposes of identifying areas of need, but also in situations where things are going well.

Iler explained, “A feature I really like identifies students who are trending up. It’s a tracker that allows me to celebrate students on my campus every two weeks…. Another project started with School Loop is Project Elevate. Project Elevate is a group of students in our leadership class who are paired with students who School Loop identified as ‘at risk.’ For example, if a freshman was failing his core classes in the first six weeks of the school year, he would be targeted by Project Elevate.”

Robert Rayburn, principal at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Norwalk, CA, employs a data collection system called i-Ready to help create partnerships among his teachers. Rayburn has been using i-Ready, which he described as a computer adaptive online learning system correlated to Common Core standards, for the past four years.

Rayburn, who has been in education for more than three decades and has been a principal for 8 years, explained, “We’re able to get almost up-to-the-minute information on how kids are doing based on the online instructions available through the system, as well as the diagnostic assessments and the progress monitoring assessments which are built in.”

According to Rayburn, students spend about 45 minutes a day engaged in online instruction delivered by the i-Ready system, and teachers meet once a week for 45 minutes to look at data. They choose key data points on students’ growth, and collectively decide which interventions are necessary. “It’s allowed us to create a real set of professional learning communities around these common assessments,” said Rayburn. “We apply a team approach, and a really strong multi-tiered intervention program that teachers deliver in small groups. The groups are fluid based on data that is fresh and up-to-date.”

Rayburn’s assessment of the assessment system? “It has been the most powerful thing I have seen in my career…. I have 100 percent buy-in from my staff.”

Getting Teachers on Board
When it comes to getting teacher buy-in for new ways to collect and use data, Deborah Spence said she believes that administrators must make teachers a part of the decision-making process. “Most teachers are life-long learners and will eagerly accept any challenge when given the opportunity to choose what is best for their students,” said Spence. “If a data process gleans authentic results, teachers will more than likely initiate new strategies and technological tools to meet the expectations.”

Sito Narcisse, the associate superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools (MD), agreed. “Teachers love systems that can produce real-time data sets. Programs such as Compass Learning for Credit Recovery, Performance Matters and Edusoft help with this context. These programs help to drill down to the indicator level.”

Big Data and the Big Picture
Using one or more of these tools can generate plenty of raw data. But, as Patricia Cotter put it, “Data is not the problem. The problem is getting the data to the right people so it can be used…. Data only tells part of the story, and a lot of it is basic so it doesn’t provide the insights that teachers and schools need to pinpoint teaching and learning problems and identify the best ways to solve them.”

With so much raw information floating around, data security is at least a passing concern — or much more than that, depending on whom you speak with. According to Cotter, worries about data security include the following: search engines targeting and displaying ads based on the content of e-mails, social media targeting job applicants based on online profiles, consumer products targeting students based on buying patterns and phishing Web sites duping students with dubious loans.

Privacy is also an ongoing issue. When it comes to parents’ fears that their children’s information could be stolen by malicious hackers, though, Cesar Chavez Principal Rayburn is resolute. “Data breaches don’t keep me up at night,” he said. “In case of a big data breach at i-Ready, there is no key ID for the students in there. There is no information that connects the child to an address or phone number. The good we can do by having this data far outweighs the damage that could be done if the data were to get loose.”