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What To Do With All That Collected Data? Wisconsin District Shares Its Thinking

Among many school administrators, the DRIP is a constant refrain: Data Rich and Information Poor. The pressure and call to collect quantitative measures of student performance steadily increase, but so too does the dilemma of what to do with the accumulating numbers.

In a Friday morning session at the AASA national conference on evidence-based leadership, Kate Storey, a senior associate with ECRA Group, an educational research and analytics consulting firm based in Schaumburg, Ill., offered the case history of Mequon-Thiensville School District in Wisconsin, a 3,800-student pre-K-12 suburban district north of Milwaukee.  Superintendent Matthew Joynt, who was scheduled to present as well, could not attend due to inclement weather.

Storey said Mequon-Thiensville has long embraced a fundamental tenet of the analytics-driven movement in public education. “You’ve got to get away from saying, ‘This is what we are doing’ and say, ‘This is the impact we’re having,’” he said.

Measuring the effect of school improvement initiatives and programs on student outcomes is more than simply reporting standardized test scores.

For the Wisconsin district, part of that process was creating a series of achievement milestones over the course of a student’s academic career, from early reading at grade-appropriate levels to engagement and citizenship for high school seniors on the cusp of graduation. In evaluating these 10 milestones in 2015, school leaders saw a clear problem. Only 36 percent of students entering the 10th grade were prepared to take Algebra 2.

After much research and debate, it was determined that two changes would be made: students could take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade if ready and elementary math classes would be extended to 75 minutes. The idea was that earlier, longer exposure to more advanced math would translate into better outcomes by the time students reached 10th grade.

Over the next few years, Mequon-Thiensville, working with ECRA Group, employed a variety of predictive analytic tools to chart the growth and progress of the first student cohort as it moved from 4th to 8th grade. They compared scores and other data against similar, previous student cohorts and found significant “effect size.” Fourth graders who had ranked in the 67th percentile nationally for math improved to the 80th percentile by the time they reached the 8th grade. There was an upward trend across all grades.

“This was evidence that what we were doing was working, that introducing students to more rigorous math was having an impact on later achievement,” said Storey.

But, she said, it takes time, effort and investment in the right strategies and tools. It takes leadership as well. “You have to build a data-driven culture. Leadership has to come from the top down. That means superintendents, administrators, building leaders have to be all in.”

(Scott LaFee is media relations director of UCSD Health in San Diego.)

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