Education Up Front

February 5, 2003

February 19, 2003

March 5, 2003

Real student achievement relies on correct data

Accountability with standards and measurements for students and teachers is a major concern on the part of all education stakeholders, certainly the local business community and taxpayers. If our region is to be known for its strong public school system, there needs to be an effective system of accountability and assessment tools to ensure that the right focus is in place to raise student achievement.

Consider the following scenarios from school districts elsewhere:

  • An affluent suburban high school and its principal are recognized and financially rewarded by the state because their 10th graders scored 11 percent higher on the state standardized exams last spring than their predecessors the year before. The reality is that the school did absolutely nothing different to improve its programs. It was readily acknowledged that the high scores were the result of a particularly academically strong group of 10th graders taking the test for which the school and its principal got the glory.

  • A high-poverty school is labeled as "low-performing" despite the fact that the staff has worked hard to implement a new standards-based math program and raised the scored 5 percent. The school and its staff are not rewarded or recognized for their achievements. Little wonder the staff is deeply demoralized.

  • A school improvement team decides to provide more test preparation in math and to tutor a small number of students whose state assessment scores are just below the "needs improvement" proficiency level. However, there is no discussion of rigor or coherence of a total school curriculum or the effectiveness of the focused instruction.

    These are but three examples of assessment data being abused, an especially critical problem in today's education environment in which single and imperfect measures of student achievement are being used to size up the effectiveness of our schools.

    I am a strong advocate of accountability in our public schools and using valid and reliable testing methodologies to gauge student progress and achievement levels. But when it comes to student learning, no single test series by itself, not even a good one, can render a full picture of what students understand and can do in relation to national and local standards and curricula. Many, if not most, teachers regard our present set of standardized tests among the least useful of the data sources they can use to gain insights into how to improve student learning.

    What is needed is for schools to use testing methodologies that make use of "longitudinal" data; that is, testing data that is gathered from specific groups of students over a period of time. What good is it to take snapshots of one group of 10th-grade students taking the test this year with another group of 10th graders taking it the prior year? One group may have transfer students who are particularly bright or not so bright or a particular set of circumstances that affect the outcome. Effective assessment is best achieved when testing data for specific students are looked at over time, as those students progress through the grades.

    Longitudinal data that monitors specific students' progress over a period of time is important for finding out whether something is getting better or worse.

    Aside from using the proper methodology, the effective use of assessment data depends on several factors that need to be in place far earlier than the testing process.

    TERC, a math and science education think tank in Cambridge, Mass., recently published a report on "Uses and Abuses of Data" that identified several elements contributing to effective data use. They bear repeating here.

  • Build a professional culture. The effective use of data happens in a robust learning community where teachers and administrators are crystal clear about their vision and commitments and focused on students' results. Without this culture, schools can become "data immune," impervious to understanding or using assessment tools with even minimal effectiveness.

  • Create collaborative structures. If teachers are going to "crunch" data and generate strategies to improve student achievement from those numbers, they need time to meet weekly in department meetings, vertical teams, grade-level teams or study groups.

  • Learn from standardized tests. Teachers need access to the data. So often teachers don't have access to the information that could help them. The summary test results that are posted on a district's Web site or published in the newspaper are little more than headlines; they certainly are not the complete story.

  • Use multiple measures of assessment. One key to success in raising student achievement is the use of common assessments designed to assess the knowledge and skills that teachers agree are central to their curriculum. Teachers can administer these assessments four times during the school year and meet weekly to analyze results, target specific goals for improvement, generate ideas to try out in their classrooms and monitor their results.

    Locally, the Business Roundtable for Education is working with 30 charter schools in San Diego County to develop and use effective measures of assessing student achievement; principally the use of longitudinal data. Charter schools are friendly environments for educational reform; in this case, reforming the way other public schools assess student achievement.

    Funded by the La Jolla-based Girard Foundation, the Roundtable's three-year Data Analysis and Accountability Project is putting into place the infrastructure needed to collect and analyze data at the participating charter school sites. This will enable those charter schools to take the information they know about their students' achievement levels, monitor it over time to watch for individual growth and slips in achievement, and be able to respond early on.

    The end result is that valid testing methodologies not only give teachers, administrators and parents a more accurate picture of their students' academic progress, they end up raising test scores as well.

    It's a strong case in which all parties involved win.

    Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

  • February 5, 2003

    February 19, 2003

    March 5, 2003