Data Use in Our Nation’s Capital

Last evening, Eduflack had the honor of testifying before the District of Columbia State Board of Education on DC’s student assessment scores and how they can be used in state-level policy development.  For those unawares, DC is an interesting case study in education system structure.  DC is both a State Education Agency (SEA) and a Local Education Agency (LEA).  The DC State Board serves as a state board in Massachusetts, Texas, or California would, and the SEA is headed by former U.S. Department of Education official Dr. Kerri Briggs.  The SEA is responsible not only for DC Public Schools, but also for the growing number of charter schools in our nation’s capital (with nearly a third of the District’s students attending charters, it is quite some job for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)).

I was the closing act for a three-part hearing.  The panel first heard from Mike Casserly, the chief of the Council of Great City Schools, who spoke to what other urban school districts are doing with their assessments and their data.  Then they heard a detailed presentation from State Superintendent Briggs and her staff, providing far greater detail on the DC-CAS numbers than was originally provided by the Mayor and Chancellor Rhee back in July.  Yours truly followed up the rear.
For readers who recall, I was harsh on DCPS back in July when they released the initial numbers.  I was concerned that student achievement, on the whole, ticked up, but there was a drop in AYP.  I was worried by Rhee’s comments about picking the low-hanging fruit to achieve those gains, knowing such fruit is now gone for later year replication.  And I was worried about declaring victory based on one or two years of data, when four or five years of real, substantive data is really necessary to see the true impact of reforms.
I was impressed with the probing questions the DCSBOE asked of OSSE and of the data, particularly its persistence in asking for greater disaggregation and a better understanding of what they do with what they have.  So what, exactly, did little ole Eduflack recommend to the District’s education leaders?  I can break it down into five key points.
1. The District should be reassured by the numbers presented by OSSE.  After further reflection and additional breakdowns, we can see that specific schools in DC are indeed trending up (though there are still some worry spots).  More importantly, DC is breaking the national cycle and is really making some progress in closing the achievement gap.  Both black and Hispanic achievement numbers were on the rise, while white student achievement remained relatively flat (noting, though, that only 5 percent of DC schoolchildren are white).
2. The most important data sets for DCSBOE to be concerned with should not be DC-CAS, but rather NAEP and NAEP-TUDA.  These data sets are the most accurate yardstick for determining how DC’s students are doing.  The District needs to better use the NAEP data, better slicing and dicing it to really understand what the data means and how it can be applied. DC also needs to avoid falling victim to the typical NAEP horserace games.  This is not about trying to catch Massachusetts in eighth grade reading NAEP or trying to outdo Atlanta in NAEP-TUDA.  DC needs to look at the data, look at the gaps, and set clear goals based on where DC is, and where they want it to head.  
3. As important as assessments are, Superintendent Briggs is correct.  It makes little sense to rework DC’s tests before core standards are complete and we know what new skills and benchmarks we are supposed to be measuring.  But rather than focusing on the assessment tool itself, DC needs to start taking a far closer look at its overall data system and how that system is better put to use.  This shouldn’t be about collecting more data, it is about better using the existing data.  How do they further disaggregate the numbers so DC families have a better sense for how individual schools and classrooms are doing?  How do they look at the data longitudinally, so they are not just measuring this year’s fourth graders against next year’s fourth graders, but are seeing how this years fourth graders are doing, performance wise, in fifth, sixth, and even eighth grades. 
DC not only needs to determine that it is improving, but it needs to know why.  The system has been layering reform after reform in the schools over the past several years.  It is near impossible to decide what is responsible for the gains and what is the chafe that should probably be cut away so the effective interventions can do their jobs.  In monitoring the schools and classes that are showing the most progress, DC needs to track the efforts that are resulting in those gains, looking at the clusters of specific interventions, and try to diagnose the best and promising practices that are happening in DC classrooms.
4. With that information, DC needs to do a better job of applying what it learns.  Principals and teachers need to be better trained in how to use the data, both before they enter the teaching profession and once they are there.  Best practices needs to be shared and modeled across the district.  Effective teachers need to serve as mentors for new teachers so they can teach good behaviors (hopefully before one has to unteach bad behaviors.)  And we need to give time for new interventions and reforms to take place.  While four or five years may seem like an eternity in education reform, changing horses after just a year or two of data, even if it is promising, is not necessarily in the best interests of DC’s students in the long run.
Many members of the board were focused on the back end, asking what could be done with regard to high school dropouts and college-going rates.  I urged them to look at the front end as well, and make sure that OSSE’s focus on investment in high-quality early childhood education is successfully translated into real ECE opportunities in DCPS.  One only needs to look at the impact of the Abbott decisions in New Jersey, and see how good early childhood education has now impacted student achievement and the achievement gap in some of the Garden State’s historically worst-performing school districts, to see that the gateway to long-term student achievement happens before kindergarten, and not in middle and high school.
5. Finally, this is a team game, and not a one-man sport.  Chancellor Rhee cannot do this by herself, nor can the DCSBOE take the responsibility entirely on its shoulders.  Lasting school improvement requires real buy in from parents and families, teachers, students, and the community at large.  With families in particular, they don’t necessarily understand the arcane definitions of AYP (particularly now that the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t even want to use the term), nor should they have to.  They want assurances that their kids are going to good schools, and if they aren’t good, they want assurances that everything is being done to improve them.  At the end of the day, families want to believe their neighborhood schools are good, particularly because they usually have affection for the principal and the teachers.  If all are invested in school turnaround, and all understand how we are doing it and how we are measuring it, we will come further faster.
Ultimately, it comes down to one key issue — how do we use the data we have?  In most cities and most SEAs, we have a wealth of data points, probably far more than most know are even there.  What we do with it is what is most important.  How do we use it to shape both teaching and learning?  How do teachers use data to implement specific in
terventions for struggling students?  How do we ID promising practice so it can be shared?  How do we find the most effective teachers and learn why they are effective?  How do we support what is working, while cutting away what may be tried, but is having no real impact?  How do we invest in the student, and not just the system?
A lot of questions, yes.  But just the sort of thinking many state boards are pondering as they enter into this new world order of assessments, data systems, achievement, innovation, and the like.

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