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Education, K-12, Opinion

Addressing Inequities and Assessment Challenges Facing Educators, Students and Families Amid Imperfect Educational Environments

How Adopting Emerging Technologies Facilitates Learning, Simplifies Progress Monitoring, and Improves Student Outcomes

A version of this article originally appeared in District Administration Magazine.

As we approach the midpoint of this school year, students are learning via a variety of instructional modalities, including face-to-face, virtual and hybrid instruction.  As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again, schools are shifting between instructional models to flex with changing health safety guidelines and local community dynamics. Educational pedagogy such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous learning” are becoming household terms. And, educators at all levels are making Herculean efforts to keep up with these challenges and to provide the best possible instruction for students.

In this oscillating climate, educators must pivot quickly to adapt—guided by data—to have the greatest impact on student learning. The ability to rapidly access, analyze and evaluate data—across multiple assessments and platforms (along with other types of data)—is critical to making decisions about instruction, programming and interventions.

The Continuing Impact COVID-19 Will Have on Students this Fall

A recent study conducted in partnership between NWEA, Brown University and University of Virginia (EdWorkingPaper 20-226) projects that “Students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” The study goes on further to state, “We estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” 

In short, not every student will be impacted in the same way, nor to the same degree. Equity plays a large role in the learning gaps between individual students resulting from a variety of elements including prior achievement, socioeconomic factors, access to technology and internet, teacher training on virtual instruction, support within the home, and more. 

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators to look at trends, past and present, and disaggregate trends easily by filtering at various levels.

Why is Data-Driven Instruction More Important Than Ever?

While assessments can be powerful tools to identify student needs or monitor student progress/growth, assessments are only powerful when the data is analyzed and applied to drive instruction, programming and interventions. Educators must use data to take action for data to have any utility. Otherwise, it’s just more test data.

In Paul Bambrick Santayo’s book, Driven by Data, he writes that schools need to change their focus from, “what is taught” to “what is learned.”  The impact of the pandemic on student learning and the ongoing transitioning of learning environments escalates the necessity of this shift in focus.

Bambrick-Santayo goes on to identify that there are four fundamental building blocks to data driven instruction: assessment, analysis, action and culture.

  • Assessments must be standards-aligned, with varying levels of questions for depth of knowledge and understanding and provide data that not only informs instruction but helps to compare students with their peers. 
  • Analysis is the key to using the data to identify areas of student need so that action can be taken. 
  • Educators must understand how to apply the conclusions from their data analysis to take appropriate actions that have the greatest impact.
  • Finally, educational leaders must create a culture in which data-driven instruction will thrive.  This includes providing and following an assessment calendar, providing time for deep data analysis and discussion, and encouraging/supporting educators in using the data to guide actions taken.
Dynamic reporting tools in data analytics systems allow educators to quickly analyze trends over multiple assessment periods, and aggregate/disaggregate data using filters.

The greatest barrier to moving from assessment to action is the deep and meaningful analysis of assessment data. Analysis requires the “systematic examination of assessment data to thoroughly determine students’ strengths and weaknesses, then taking the necessary steps to address their needs,” states Bambrick-Santayo.

How to Optimally Get from Assessment to Action

According to Bambrick-Santayo, the first core driver of analysis includes “user-friendly reports.” Time is the new premium. There isn’t the time, nor resources, available to build complex spreadsheets to facilitate comparing data across multiple assessment platforms. The skill level at which educators can analyze data varies as greatly as the instructional levels among students, and many educators may not have the technical skills to create and manage the elaborate spreadsheets needed for meaningful data analysis. Time to teach these new skills is severely limited or not available.  Furthermore, safety protocols, preparation for virtual learning classes, and the new logistics/daily routines of instruction have removed any “extra” time that was once nominally available.

Educators need tools that help analyze data across multiple platforms—quickly, easily and seamlessly. They want tools that provide easy-to-read reports, where computerized systems “crunch the numbers for them.” These tools should rapidly disaggregate or aggregate student assessment data at the student, class, grade, building or district level—by subject, standard or objective—all within a few clicks…not hours or days.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily group students by proficiency and skill/goal area for targeted instruction/intervention.

Dynamic platforms empower educators to change views rapidly in order to identify trends, gaps and areas of need. They help educators filter different types of student data, including achievement, attendance, behavior, demographic and perception data, so that schools and districts are able to analyze the needs of the whole child. In a perfect world, this should be available in one online platform (not multiple systems with different logins that require manual massaging of data between platforms). Data must be accessible anytime, anywhere, to adapt to changing school environments.

Dynamic reporting tools can help educators easily identify significant gaps among different groups of students, help drive data-based decisions on interventions, programming and resource allocation.

A “New Normal” Guided by Data

Perhaps COVID-19 will accelerate the implementation of data-driven instruction to permeate more substantially in everyday educational practice. The easier data analysis is, the more it frees educators to spend their time taking meaningful action with students. For Data Driven practices to take root, educational leaders must also purposefully set aside time to infuse deep and meaningful data analysis, planning and action into the school culture. 

It’s not that educators don’t have enough access to data. It’s that educators need to easily convert that data into intelligence…and intelligence into action. Only then, can educators focus their time, energy, expertise and passion on what they do best—educating and developing today’s learners!

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Experience with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com. Learn more at munetrix.com.

References 

Bambrick-Santayo, Paul.  Driven by Data 2.0: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction.  Jossey-Bass, 2019.

Dorn, Emma, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Virelug. (2020)., COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.  Retrieved from Fresno State University: https://fresnostate.edu/kremen/about/centers-projects/weltycenter/documents/COVID-19-and-student-learning-in-the-United-States-FINAL.pdf

Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05

Education, Fiscal Health, K-12, Opinion

Schools Should Take a Three-Phased Approach as They Plan to Return to “Normal”

How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

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