Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Syracuse, New York: Streamlining District Assessments

In 2014, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) created the Teaching is the Core grant to help school districts improve the quality of all local assessments, while eliminating or modifying those that do not contribute to teaching and learning. Throughout 2014-15, Education First, a national strategy and policy organization, supported Syracuse City School District (SCSD) to identify goals and priorities for assessment and to meaningfully engage stakeholders, including teachers and their union, principals, families and school board members. Together, they worked to find ways to streamline and minimize the battery of assessments being used, consider which assessments were most useful to educators and most reflective of district learning goals, and boost the capacity of teachers and parents to understand what a “high quality” assessment looks like.

In Syracuse, district leaders first identified every single assessment used by more than one teacher, measuring more than a week’s worth of instruction. Then, Education First and SCSD created a survey to inventory those school-level assessments – which identified 63 additional assessments beyond those required by the state or district for accountability purposes.

Next, the district and Education First assembled educator review teams in four subject areas and for English language learners to evaluate the quality of these assessments. In partnership with Achievement Network, a national nonprofit that supports school improvement and better use of data in Syracuse and around the nation, Education First devised a rubric based on the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) Criteria for Procuring and Evaluating High-Quality Assessment and aligned the rubric with five NYSED-required criteria: rigor, comparability, informs instruction, supports learning goals, and uses diverse assessment techniques. Using these reviews and ratings, SCSD decided what assessments would be streamlined, replaced or eliminated, what would be modified and what would be maintained.

After the reviews, teachers recommended that the majority of unit assessments be modified or eliminated, and that a series of math computation and early literacy assessments and two engineering assessments be eliminated. Also as a result of the process, the district created a new assessment framework and decided to only require two non-state summative assessments to be administered district-wide, which teachers recommended keeping. Schools were given discretion over all other assessment administration and the district issued messaging around strong assessment practice to support schools in making good decisions about what assessments to administer, when and why.

This image is a text box that reads: Header - a Focus on Streamlining, Syracuse City School District Assessment Framework and Belief Statements. Syracuse City School District (SCSD) built an assessment framework that outlined the goals of each type of assessment and how assessment fits into the district's overall instructional improvement strategy. SCSD also created a believe statement about the role of assessment in their overall district goals. Belief Statements: Assessments should be high-quality. We must make the most of the time students and teachers have together. Assessments must be aligned with rigorous standards and measure students' abilities to think critically, synthesize material from multiple sources, analyze probelms and justify responses. Assessments should be part of a coherent system. Assessments hsould complement each other in a way that defines a coherent system of measures. This requires balance of different assessment types staggered across a school year to holistically capture student performance and growth. Assessments that provide similar information on teaching and learning should be eliminated. Assessments should be meaningful. Assessments are critical to improving instructional practice int he classroom by arming stakeholders with the most important information. A robust assessment system is also empowering to students. Students should have access to assessment data so that they understand where they are in relationship to the goals they are setting for themselves. To best accomplish this, the results of assesssments should be timely, transparent, disaggregated, and easily accessible to all stakeholders so they can interpret and analyze results.

Source: Education First, Fewer and Better Local Assessments: A Toolkit for Educators.

Supporting Districts to Streamline Assessments

As a result of the work with teachers in Syracuse and informed by lessons learned from other school systems, Education First created a free/open source Toolkit to help schools, school districts and charter management organizations both streamline and improve the quality of testing. Fewer and Better Local Assessments: A Toolkit for Educators includes (1) a step-by-step Playbook for district leaders, which builds on extends the Student Assessment Inventory Process built by Achieve; (2) Local Assessment Screener for Educator Reviewers (LASER), which are teacher-friendly rubrics to evaluate low-stakes assessments, as well as teacher training materials; and (3) plug-and-play materials for school leaders that are available for download and are fully adaptable. By providing these tools, lessons and advice, Education First intends to give school systems a “leg up” on leading their own assessment review processes with significant stakeholder engagement.

To read more about the work in Syracuse and the resources provided by Education First, visit: http://education-first.com/library/publication/fewer-and-better-local-assessments/

 

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Two students sit at a desk, working on notebooks with textbooks placed in front of them. The student on the right looks on as the student on the left is writing.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. PROGRESS has highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OKIllinois, and Delaware.

Louisiana Department of Education – Supporting districts to use high-quality benchmark assessments.

In Louisiana, 90 percent of its 79 districts completed an audit of their local assessments in 2014 and identified the need to reduce unnecessary testing. For example, the audit found that, on average, third grade students were spending 25 to 34 school days a year taking local assessments. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) is taking a number of steps to support districts in reducing unnecessary testing and improving the quality of their assessments. LDOE is working with five pilot districts to create model assessment systems, and is providing all districts with guidance on reducing unnecessary assessments, along with direct and individualized coaching. These efforts have reduced unnecessary testing in many districts; the State plans to conduct a second round of audits with districts in the coming months to identify additional areas for future support.

Stephen Zafirau of St. John Public Schools, said, “Our collaboration with the LDOE on our district assessment system has been invaluable. Through this project, we have gained insight by conducting focus groups and surveys with administrators, teachers, and students to learn how we can strengthen assessments and provide effective feedback in St. John the Baptist Parish. Many of our efforts leading into the next school year will focus on revising our assessment framework and effectively communicating to school administrators and classroom teachers the purpose and value of formative and summative assessments. We are currently planning to focus district professional development efforts on how our assessments can be used to set goals, plan instruction, and address student instructional needs.”

LDOE is leading an online review of local assessments to provide districts with information on the extent to which their tests are aligned with state content standards, in order to help districts improve the quality of these locally administered assessments. Each local school system can then use this information to determine if an assessment is appropriate to meet the needs of their students.

Jeannie Cormier, Supervisor of Middle Schools / Accountability Contact  in Vermilion Parish, believes that assessments should be used as tools to track student growth and provide information that can be used to modify instruction and improve student learning. She stated, “The focus on state, district, and school assessments helped clarify the purpose and goals of assessments for our district. I now envision a system in which all stakeholders have their eyes on the same-goals. Teacher evaluation targets for student growth, principal targets for school success, and student goals must be aligned. In addition, the assessment process and products will have more use and be more effective if they are transparent to all stakeholders.”

The process that LDOE uses to review local assessments is the same process that was established in 2012 to support districts in selecting instructional materials (e.g., textbooks, workbooks, curriculum guides) that are best for their local communities.

“We believe that the state can and should play a role in providing unbiased, rigorous reviews that put relationships aside and simply identify quality,” said Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White. “But reviews aren’t enough. Locals need to both be savvy users of these reviews and they need to easily purchase the best tools. Given this, we spend a lot of time helping locals see the connections between our reviews and what is demanded in our standards and assessments. We also provide state contracts for quality tools to support ease of purchasing.” In addition to selecting materials reviewed by the LDOE review process, districts can also use their own local review process or adopt a combination of state-reviewed materials and locally-reviewed materials.

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Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Acting Assistant Secretary King is seated on the floor of a classroom with a class of elementary school students. The teacher is sitting on a chair at the front of the room, speaking to the class. One student raises her hand to speak.

Acting Assistant Secretary King sits in on a class at Kuumba Academy in Wilmington, DE. Photo Credit: Delaware Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. PROGRESS has highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK, and in Illinois.

Delaware Committed to Finding a Balance

In a recent visit to Wilmington, Delaware, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education King spoke with State leaders, superintendents, and educators about testing, the role it plays in teaching and learning, and how quality assessments can be used to improve academic achievement. “It’s important for us to know where we have achievement gaps. It is important for us to know where our students are making progress,” King said. “But there are places around the country where there is too much assessment and the assessments are not the quality we want.”

Congressman John Carney, Dr. Mark Phelps (Head of School at Academia Antonia Alonso), Acting Secretary John King, and Governor Jack Markell (listed left to right) pose for a photo with students at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, DE.

Congressman John Carney, Dr. Mark Phelps (Head of School at Academia Antonia Alonso), Acting Secretary John King, and Governor Jack Markell (listed left to right) pose for a photo with students at Academia Antonia Alonso in Wilmington, DE. Photo Credit: Delaware Department of Education.

During his visit, Acting Secretary King praised Delaware for recognizing the critical importance of high-quality assessments in providing information to educators, parents, and students, and for understanding their value in ensuring equity for all students. He also noted that, oftentimes, there are unnecessary or overly burdensome assessments that don’t provide the information that educators need to support students. In Delaware, districts are working together to reduce the testing burden and improve the quality of necessary tests that provide information on students’ learning growth.

All district and charter schools in Delaware were required to complete an inventory of their assessments and submit their findings to the Delaware Department of Education by December 31, 2015. A committee of teachers, administrators, and parents from across the State is reviewing the assessment inventories, recommendations, and impact information. The Delaware Department of Education will release a report summarizing the information later this year.

The State provided funds to help districts and charter schools conduct the assessment inventories. A total of $325,597 was provided to the 11 districts that requested financial assistance. The individual grants ranged from $10,000 to $60,000 based on their student populations.

“Our educators, our students, and their parents all deserve the benefits of effective assessments that show when students are excelling and when they need extra support,” said Governor Jack Markell. “At the same time, tests that don’t add meaningfully to the learning process mean less time for students to receive the instruction and support they need. We are committed to finding the right balance, and this initiative is an important part of that process.”

Brandywine School District Focuses on Quality

Brandywine school district (located near Wilmington, DE) conducted its assessment inventory supported by a grant from the state. At the time, there were very few common assessments mandated by the district. Instead, many schools and teachers created assessments on their own without district involvement. Brandywine’s assessment inventory found that many of these assessments were not aligned to the State’s standards, did not measure the depth of knowledge required by these new standards, nor included a variety of item types. In particular, there was limited use of performance tasks that measure students’ critical thinking skills. The district is working with its teachers and school administrators to review, revise, and in some cases, eliminate these assessments. In their place will be high-quality formative assessments, tests used throughout the year by educators to assess whether students are learning content, aligned to the State’s standards that will be given throughout the district. For example, the district will require a common writing test as part of the secondary English language assessment.

“We recognized the need to increase the use of formative assessments to improve student learning and to involve students in monitoring their achievement,” said Julie Schmidt, Supervisor of Assessment and Accountability in the Brandywine School District. “Our focus is on quality, and not just on reducing the number of assessments. We want high-quality, instructionally-relevant assessments that provide information to teachers, parents, and students in a timely manner,” said Cary Riches, Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

During this school year, teachers are working together to identify and pilot at least one performance task per grade level in all the core content areas. “Bringing teachers together to review and score work samples from our classrooms has been very helpful,” said Riches. “It has helped us take ownership of the assessments and given us time to discuss how to improve instruction to meet the needs of our students.”

The district chose to use some of its grant funds to hire an outside assessment expert to review district assessments. “It was very helpful to have an outside person who could help us look at our assessments objectively; it expanded our thinking about assessments and pushed us to think creatively,” said Schmidt. Based on the results from the assessment inventory, the district developed a five-year plan to develop a balanced assessment system, which includes a clear vision and guiding principles to follow during implementation of the plan.

“In addition to increasing assessment literacy amongst our teachers and administrators, it has also helped us improve and expand our learning management system so that teachers have timely access to information about student performance and resources, such as test item banks,” noted Riches. “The assessment inventory process has been a catalyst for a number of changes in our district.”

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

A student writes on a work sheet with a pencil while a teacher looks on.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan). Following up on its commitment to be a part of the solution, the Department recently released guidance to States on how they can use federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to reduce the testing burden and improve the use of high-quality assessments so that educators and families can better understand student learning needs and help them make progress (read the letter to States).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. Last month, PROGRESS highlighted work in Tennessee and Tulsa, OK. Below are examples from Illinois, including a spotlight on Bensenville School District 2.

The Illinois State Board of Education completed a pilot study in August 2015 to determine which local assessments were providing valuable information to educators in order to increase student achievement, and which assessments could be eliminated.  Three districts (Urbana School District 116, West Aurora School District 129, and Bensenville School District 2) collected data from administrators, teachers, and parents about local assessment use and quality using an adaption of the “The Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts” developed by Achieve (www.achieve.org/assessmentinventory). All three districts concluded that the inventory process was valuable and plan to evaluate their local assessment systems annually.

“The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential,” said Kay Dugan, Assistant Superintendent for Learning in Bensenville School District 2. “They The image is a quote from Kay Dugan, the Assistant Superintendent for Learning at Bensenville School District 2. It reads, "The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential."provided valuable perspectives and kept us focused on one essential question — Does the assessment provide accurate and valuable information to positively impact student achievement?” As a result of their work, the committee recommended eliminating off-the- shelf assessments in reading and math to students in grades 2 through 8. Eliminating these district assessments (which were administered twice a year in the 2014-15 school year) allowed teachers to reclaim approximately 12 hours of instructional time per year.

Jean Korder, Urbana School District 116 director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment said, “We chose to participate in the pilot to address our ongoing need to increase assessment literacy and the use of high-quality assessments to make informed instructional decisions to better meet the needs of all students.” As a result of their assessment inventory work, the district eliminated benchmark tests in reading and math (provided from an outside vendor). The inventory process found that the assessments were not aligned to the districts’ current standards and that teachers were not using the results of these assessments to improve classroom instruction. Eliminating these assessments allowed the district to reclaim 270 minutes of instructional time per year.

The West Aurora School district 129 Leadership Team stated, “As a district, we wanted to ensure that our system of assessment made sense to our students, staff, and parents.  Our goal for this process was to have quality assessments that provide us with the information needed to accurately assess the needs of our students and our programs.”

In addition to obtaining valuable information about local standardized assessments given each month, broken down by grade level and student subgroup, the inventory process provided information about professional development needs and engaged educators in thinking critically about assessments and the use of assessment information. The Illinois State Board of Education has made training on the assessment inventory process available statewide through their Statewide System of Supports, which offers professional learning/development opportunities to all schools in Illinois at little to no cost.

In Bensenville, there were benefits beyond reducing time spent on testing and test preparation. Another major outcome of the pilot study was improving assessment literacy among teachers and administrators, which led to the district’s current efforts to develop a “standards-based report card.” The district formed a team of teachers, school board members, and parents to revamp the existing report card with the goal of implementing the new report card in the 2015-16 school year. “The focus on developing a standards-based report card would not have happened without our involvement in the assessment inventory. Completing the assessment inventory increased our assessment literacy and changed the conversation about assessments; it helped us develop a common vocabulary and come to agreement on what we mean by terms such as “mastery” and “proficiency,” which aligns with our work around teacher evaluation and student-growth metrics.”

For additional information, please visit:

www. isbe.net/assessment/pdfs/bal-asmt/news/inventory-pilot-concludes-150825.pdf

www. isbe.net/assessment/pdfs/bal-asmt-inventory-tool-150423.pdf

Testing Action Plan: State and District Profiles

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners. Done poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose, they take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creativity from our classrooms.  In the vital effort to ensure that all students in America are achieving at high levels, it is essential to ensure that tests are fair, are of high quality, take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success in college and careers.

In too many schools today, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students. In October, 2015, the Department released a set of principles to help correct the balance, protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in informing progress for students and evaluating schools and educators, while providing help in unwinding practices that have burdened classroom time or not served students or educators well (read more about the Testing Action Plan).

States and districts across the country are taking steps to reduce unnecessary testing and to ensure tests that are administered are high quality and worth taking. Below are a set of examples, the first of a series that will be highlighted on PROGRESS.

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Louisiana Relying on Teacher-to-Teacher Professional Development to Change Instruction

Teacher leaders in grades K-2 gathered in July 2014 to learn new ways to teach English language arts content and design lessons for the 2014-2015 school year. Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education

Teacher leaders in grades K-2 gathered in July 2014 to learn new ways to teach English language arts content and design lessons for the 2014-2015 school year. Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education

Teachers are getting higher quality support, coaching and professional learning opportunities to help their students succeed.

Louisiana’s Teacher Leader program is drawing rave reviews from teachers for providing them with better resources, more meaningful peer-to-peer professional development and a stronger connection between educators serving in schools and policymakers serving in Baton Rouge.

First launched in fall 2012 with 50 teachers and funding from Race to the Top, the program has now grown to include more than 4,000 educators—generally two from every school in the State. The State holds one multi-day, statewide training session for teacher leaders each summer and regional meetings throughout the year.

In these sessions, teacher leaders receive in-depth training in subjects such as mathematics, English language arts, science, and social studies and in skills such as implementing college- and career-readiness standards and creating formative assessments.

The teacher leaders then redeliver that training to colleagues in their communities to help them improve instruction in their classrooms. The teacher leaders also offer feedback to State policymakers on the classroom resources teachers need and some of the more experienced teacher leaders serve on committees that help create and review those resources.

Districts vary in how they select teacher leaders. In some cases teachers apply to participate, and in others they are tapped for the role based on their leadership and teaching skills.

Teacher leaders are recognized for their leadership and can also receive a financial boost. Some districts pay them more because the training they do is in addition to working as full-time teachers. The State also provides small stipends to those who help create curricular resources that teachers can use to plan and deliver lessons linked to the new college- and career-ready standards.

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Florida Formative Assessments Help Teachers Target Students’ Needs

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Teachers are given powerful tools to help students master rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

Bette Smith, an Algebra I teacher at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, does a lot of running during the school day to address the learning needs of each of her students. But with the help of a new tool called the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS), her running around is targeted and she is able to use her time more efficiently and effectively. “I am able to see who needs attention [and] who needs me to tell them they are on the right track,” she says. “It has totally cut down on the running and gives students more time with me.”

MFAS, which is free and available online, includes more than 1,300 tasks and problems that teachers can use to gauge students’ knowledge of the State mathematics standards. With each task comes a rubric that helps teachers interpret students’ responses to identify their needs and then customize their instruction.

Funded by a Race to the Top grant in 2011, the project originally focused on grades K–3, but it proved so valuable that districts asked the Florida Department of Education to expand MFAS. The tool now includes grades 4–8, Algebra I and Geometry.

Finding Out What Students Know

The tasks and problems are brief and are designed to be used by teachers to group students according to their needs. The rubrics are detailed and include examples of student work correlated with typical misconceptions or errors. That helps teachers understand students’ thinking and design lessons accordingly.

“Sometimes just a good thought-provoking question will send students to the next level or to mastery of the standard,” Smith says.

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Districts Give High Marks to Louisiana’s Regional Support Teams

Supporters are helping educators implement rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

When the Louisiana Department of Education announced three years ago that it would hire instructional coaches and other experts to support schools and districts across the State, some educators were a little skeptical. Traditionally, the role of State education agencies has been to monitor spending and enforce regulations.

“Some were thinking, ‘Well they’re just here to oversee us, to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,’” recalls Don Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish schools. “Well, as it turned out, that first year was good. The second year was better. And this year, they are like a part of us.”This graphic has a quote from Dan Coker, assistant superintendent and personnel director of Ouachita Parish Schools: “That first year was good. The second year was better. And this year, they are like a part of us.”

The State has used Race to the Top funds to hire the coaches and other support staff, who are organized into four
regional teams. Each team has a handful of coaches whose job it is to help teachers and principals analyze student and other data, create strategic plans and set goals, implement college- and career-ready standards, vet classroom resources and institute a new teacher evaluation system. Many of the coaches taught previously in the communities that they are now serving, inspiring trust from district leaders and educators. The coaches typically spend about four days a week in and out of schools with some joking that their cars are their offices. One day a week often is reserved to meet with other members of their regional team.

Melissa Stilley, who leads a regional network in south Louisiana and previously ran one in the northeastern part of the State, manages a team of coaches who are in and out of schools daily. Her team helps principals conduct good classroom observations, which are a key element of the State’s teacher evaluation system. The coaches observe classrooms alongside district leaders, not to evaluate the teachers but to find out afterwards what the principals think was significant about what they saw.

“After the observation, we’ll lead a conversation with the principal, in which we’ll ask, ‘What feedback would you give the teacher?’” Stilley said. The coach would lead the principal to think about feedback related to the rigor of the lesson, the content covered and whether the teacher used formative assessments aligned with end-of-year tests. In addition to helping principals conduct strong observations, the coaches guide them in how to provide meaningful feedback to teachers.

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Rhode Island School Makes Learning “Personal” for Students

Students in a classroom, all seated around their laptops at individual desks, respond to a teacher standing at the front of the classroom at a white board.

Students get some face-to-face help from a teacher in the Village Green Virtual School Learning Center. Photo Credit: Village Green Virtual School.

Students move at their own pace toward mastering standards and college and career readiness.

Picture this. Sarah, a 10th-grader, is in the learning lab finishing up an assignment on Julius Caesar. She has one more test and a final to pass before she moves on to 11th-grade material. She can take the tests whenever she feels ready. She can then shift her attention to mathematics, where she is several assignments behind.

Meanwhile, Tammy is working on a 10th-grade grammar quiz. Grammar isn’t her strongest skill, but by working at her own pace, she is able to master the assignments. If she doesn’t pass the quiz, she can retake it as many times as necessary until she gets a passing score.  She can also ask her teacher for help, if she wants, or go to a workshop in the afternoon with other students struggling with the same lesson.

For observers of this scene from a visit in spring 2015, it may seem like student learning is all over the map at Village Green Virtual Charter School. That’s because it is—by design. Sarah and Tammy’s school, founded in Providence, Rhode Island in September 2013 serving grades 9–10 with plans to expand to grades 9–12, was created with the express goal of “personalizing” learning for every student through a “blended learning” model of online curriculum and in-classroom teaching.

Teachers at Village Green work with students who ask for help or who they can see are struggling to master skills or strategies using the online curriculum. The model is designed to enable teachers to focus their attention on targeting the learning needs of each student. Students work on some subjects longer than others if they need to, and teachers work with groups of students that all need help on a particular skill.

No day at Village Green is routine. “There’s absolutely no typical day here,” said Khori Lopes, an English teacher who joined the school the previous school year. “Everybody is working on different things all the time.”

The school’s design supports this fluidity. There are no classrooms or bell schedules.  Students rotate throughout each day between online learning, small workshops focused on addressing specific skill gaps and advisory or reading groups. As Rob Pilkington, the school’s founder and superintendent said, time is considered a variable, not a constant. “Time shouldn’t dictate the structure of student learning. If an English lesson takes two hours to complete on a given day, and a science activity takes a half hour to complete, then why should a bell schedule allow only one hour each?” said Pilkington.

Laboratory for Statewide Expansion of Blended Learning

Village Green is the first school of its kind in Rhode Island. With support from the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school has served as a learning laboratory for educators across the State interested in replicating its blend of online courses and teacher-led instruction.

The image is a textbox that quotes Holly Walsh, the Director of Instructional Technology and E-Learning at the Rhode Island Department of Education. It reads, "We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a roadmap to guide them."

“We need to identify and support early innovators and learn as much as we can so that later adopters can have a
roadmap to guide them,” said Holly Walsh, who oversees Rhode Island’s Instructional Technology and E-Learning work. The State believes technology can have a transformative impact on educational outcomes and has launched an ambitious effort to become the first in the nation to adopt blended learning statewide.

“Digital learning in all of its forms provides…unlimited educational resources for every classroom, allows our schools to design flexible instructional schedules and enables students and teachers to work closely together at a pace that is right for each student,” said Deborah Gist, former Rhode Island Commissioner of Education.

And they are well on their way to making this vision a reality. In the 2014–2015 school year, almost half (14 out of 32) of districts in the State started to implement 1:1 blended learning models, and all schools had the high-speed wireless Internet access blended learning requires. The State also hosts an annual digital learning conference and partnered with Village Green to chronicle its model and lessons learned.

Online Platform Allows for Self-Paced Learning

Village Green uses an online curriculum, called “Edgenuity,“ which allows students to move through assignments at their own pace. Every student has a workstation where they log into their own personal Edgenuity portal and choose what to work on. Students take frequent tests and quizzes, and complete practice assignments. A data dashboard displays skills they’ve already mastered in green, those they are on track to master in blue and those they are struggling with in red.

Khori Lopes said the real-time data has been motivating. “My students are very competitive. They don’t like to see ‘red.’ Even if they don’t like the topic, they try really hard to get ‘green.’ We can take a student’s work habits and completion rates and predict their graduation date. This makes things much more real for students when they’re falling behind.”

The data also help Lopes. She can monitor the performance and progress of individual students or multiple students at once, including overall grades, percentage of work completed and idle time. “There’s no excuse for not knowing where they’re at because the data is so immediate,” said Lopes. “If someone’s having a bad day, I can say ‘let me check your session log’ and I’ll see they’ve only completed a few activities. That’s a great middle of the day intervention. I can ask them ‘is something bothering you today; do you need to talk?’”

Learning to Make Choices

Because students have more control over how they spend their time at school, they are constantly confronted with choices. “We’re teaching them to manage those choices,” said Lopes. “We are routinely asking, ‘Where are you seeing yourself falling behind? Do you really want to save all of your English for June?’ Students need to get into the habit of making lists and schedules.”

Students say they appreciate the flexibility. “I like that I can get ahead in certain courses and take more time in others,” said Mike, who started as a student at Village Green last year after six years of homeschooling. When Mike was in the 11th grade he had already completed pre-calculus, which is typically taken in the 12th grade. While he’s far ahead in mathematics, he was playing catch-up in English and history.

Jesus, an 11th grader last year, said he also appreciates that he is not limited to a structured curriculum that requires students to move in lockstep. However, with less than a month left of the school year, he still had to complete about a third of his mathematics assignments before he could move on to 12th-grade mathematics. He was confident he’d get there because he could ask for help any time to fill the gaps in his skills. “If I was in a regular public school, they’d just move on without me,” he said. “Here, I’m able to move at my own pace.”

Even graduation dates are flexible. Some students, like Madeline, are on track to graduate in three years. Madeline, now an 11th grader, finished 10thgrade English in early April and, as of mid-May, had only 10 days of geometry work left. This year, she plans to complete requirements for both 11th and 12th grades and earn her diploma by the end of the year.

Madeline’s trajectory is not uncommon at Village Green. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of students are on track to graduate in three years, some of them taking Advanced Placement or other classes that earn them college credit. But for other students, even the four-year path can be challenging. While this kind of flexibility is a core part of the school’s model, the reality has come as a bit of a shock to teachers and administrators. “When we first got into this, we thought every kid would start at the starting line together and finish together, but the proficiency model just doesn’t allow for this,” Pilkington said. This year, the school will provide more structured time for English and mathematics to keep students from falling too far behind. Students will have instruction in English and mathematics three times per week with certified teachers instructing using Edgenuity and other online sources. The goal is to have groups of students work in a blended environment where the teacher can have a higher degree of oversight and control over pace and assessment cycle. In all other subjects, like history, science and foreign languages, students will continue to have complete flexibility to move at their own pace.

Teachers are Critical to Student Success

When people hear about Village Green’s heavy reliance on technology, many assume that teachers are obsolete. Pilkington said this could not be further from the truth. “While tech is critical, it’s not about the tech,” he said. “It’s about the relationships and rapport between students and teachers.” Teachers are constantly interacting with students, either individually or in small group workshops geared toward a particular skill or lesson where students need extra support.

Pilkington actually had to hire more teachers part way through the first school year when he realized the 17:1 ratio of students to teachers wasn’t enough to give students the individualized attention they needed. “We need more teachers, not fewer” to make our model work, he said. By the second school year, the student to teacher ratio was 10:1.

Because students have more ownership over their learning, teachers play a very different role. As Pilkington described it, “teachers are facilitators and coaches. They partner with students to help them get to the next level in their learning.” While it may sound like teachers have it easy, this is hardly the case. To prepare for classes, teachers must take the Edgenuity course themselves (including lessons, units, quizzes, tests and exams) to understand what material is covered. “This is a huge amount of time and effort,” said Pilkington. Teachers analyze student data on a nightly basis to see where each student is and what they will need the next day, compile other online sources to supplement Edgenuity, and create standard lesson plans for teaching workshops or facilitating research projects.

The main things the teachers are freed from at Village Green are quiz and test construction, grading, and designing core lessons. “However, they still have to plan the workshop and plan to re-teach Edgenuity in case a lesson is not grasped,” explained Pilkington.

Model Is Not Without Challenges

Village Green has entered uncharted territory with its self-paced model, and this comes with plenty of unexpected challenges. For Kevin Cordeiro, a social studies teacher at Village Green, one of the biggest adjustments has been staying current on a wide range of subjects. “For the first three to four months, I had no idea if the first kid I talked to each day was going to ask me about medieval Europe or the Vietnam War,” he said.

While they don’t yet know how this will all play out, it is a critical part of the innovation journey. Schools like Village Green are helping to inform a national conversation about what it takes to truly personalize learning for every student.

Takeaways

  • Flexibility is key for teachers. Teaching in a self-paced school requires a high degree of flexibility in responding to where students are in their learning.
  • Just because students are computer savvy, does not mean they are intuitive e-learners. Village Green has had to train students to become proficient with the Edgenuity curriculum.
  • While technology is critical, it’s not about the technology. The relationships and rapport between teachers and students are essential for student success.
  • Students value self-paced learning. Students at Village Green appreciate the ability to move at their own pace and have ownership over their time.
  • Misalignment between State tests and the self-paced model is a challenge. As more schools move toward self-paced models, districts and States will need to consider how to better align State testing requirements with individualized learning approaches.

For updates on Village Green’s progress, check out the school’s website.

Tools and Resources

Delaware’s BRINC Districts Collaborate to Personalize Learning for All Students

Teachers blend online and in-person instruction to engage students and increase college and career readiness.

Tim Brewer, science department chairman at St. George’s Technical High School in Middletown, Delaware, had had his students using computers for research and for sharing documents for eight years and considered himself to be “technology savvy.” Then, in the fall of 2013, he was asked to begin meeting with teachers from three other districts to design lessons that blended traditional instruction and online learning and gave students choices as to how to do their work.DE-BRINC Consortium pullquote 1

The experience was an eye-opener. “It had never occurred to me to teach this way,” he said. “It really shook me to my foundation.”

Brewer was one of 40 teachers from 10 high schools who met with experts and worked on designing blended learning lessons between 2013 and 2015. The BRINC Consortium—an acronym of Brandywine, Indian River, New Castle County Vocational Technical, and Colonial—was formed to ensure that districts’ technology brought about instructional changes that would close achievement gaps and increase students’ college and career readiness by personalizing teaching and learning in Kindergarten through 12th grade.

Blended learning is an approach in which teachers deliver some instruction in traditional ways but also expect students to learn via digital and online media in and outside of class. Students are encouraged to follow a path of their choosing at a pace that is comfortable to them, as long as they meet expectations. That required Brewer and other teachers to make some major changes. “I had to take everything I was doing and reinvent it,” said Tara Saladyga, who teaches ninth grade physical science at Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington. But, she said, “I’m comfortable with change. I don’t want to wait and keep doing something that is not giving me optimal results.”

The consortium used a portion of the 59 million dollar grant provided by Race to the Top funds and a 2013 Delaware Department of Education innovation grant to purchase technology, build a new learning management system, and to deliver high quality professional learning for educators. The learning management system, powered by Schoology and the professional development, provided by Modern Teacher, were invaluable in providing access for Delaware’s students to learn in a personalized environment. Three more districts—Appoquinimink, Caesar Rodney, and Red Clay—joined the consortium at the beginning of last year, the consortium now serves about 52% of the State’s public school students. All seven districts are continuing the training using local and Federal Title II grants with a goal of having all teachers at the 20 high schools in the seven districts using the blended learning approach by the end of school year (SY) 2016–2017.

As a result of this partnership, the Delaware Department of Education recently selected Schoology’s learning management system to replace its existing system to power online and blended learning for the entire state to shift education from being teacher-driven to student-centered, making active, engaged learners with access to the best, most effective technology.

Unprecedented Collaboration

“The business community is telling us that many of their employees are conducting work outside of office walls and using information and technology to produce reports, build relationships and, ultimately, achieve outcomes that positively impact the company and the customer,” said Mark Holodick, superintendent of the 11,000-student Brandywine School District in Wilmington.

“Now, we’re doing the same with blended learning—recognizing that students can access information and demonstrate they’ve acquired knowledge and skills outside the four walls of the classroom wherever and whenever they want,” he said.

Urban, rural, suburban and vocational-technical school districts are involved and each has different strengths, which they share through collaboration. Eventually, the lesson plans and curricula the teachers are developing will be made available across the consortium.  “For the first time that I am aware of, you have districts from across the State collaborating entirely voluntarily, and they are seeing the benefits,” Holodick said.

“The opportunity to collaborate at every level, from superintendents to administrators, teachers to students, has pushed our thinking and progress on blended learning best practices,” said Mike League, Indian River’s instructional technology specialist. “It’s that collaborative spirit of the BRINC Constortium which has encouraged the sharing of ideas, lessons learned, and resources across district lines to improve the learning experience in our classrooms.”

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