There are plenty of U.S. school systems that are larger than Department of Defense Education Activity, with its 164 schools and 72,000 students. Los Angeles, New York, and Houston are just a few.
But none can say they operate across 10 different time zones, with schools in 11 foreign countries, seven states and two U.S. territories.
Broader still is the mission, providing quality K-12 education to highly-mobile military families who could find themselves living in Germany, Korea and the Washington suburbs all in the span of a decade of service. For Thomas M. Brady, director of DoDEA for the last five years, facilitating that mobility with educational support is a vital component of America’s military readiness.
“If the men and women we’re sending in harm’s way … are comfortable that their children are in a good quality school system, then they can focus on their mission and they don’t have to worry,” Brady said. “That’s one less distraction from what they do. It’s a very important mission that we take very seriously.”
For Brady, who ran school systems in Washington DC, Philadelphia and Providence, the mission is close to home. During 25 years in the Army, his family moved roughly 19 times. His oldest daughter attended four different high schools. “Moving is part of the Department of Defense fabric,” he said.
For DoDEA, however, that mobility presents special challenges. The system serves children of families in all five branches of the service, plus civilian Department of Defense workers. Not only do students move frequently between DoDEA schools, but they also move in and out of civilian school systems. Standards and continuity across subjects and grade levels is vital.
To ensure that continuity, Brady and his team created an assessment system with both summative and interim components. Adopting national college and career readiness standards, DoDEA began summative assessments two years ago, administering annual tests similar to those used by states.
“As one of two federally-operated school systems, the No Child Left Behind and ESSA mandates did not have a direct impact on the operation of our schools. However, we believe in accountability to our stakeholders and the importance of a viable assessment program and after the first full year of implementation, we’re doing remarkably well.”
In this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, fourth graders at DoDEA schools led the nation in both the reading and math assessments. Eight graders led the reading assessment, and ranked second in math. DoDEA scores beat the national averages by 10 to 18 percentage points.
“If we’re teaching the standards at or above [the national] level, then our children will not have a problem when they get to different school districts,” Brady said.
Yet DoDEA did not stop with summative assessment. This year, the organization implemented an interim assessment program with a goal of introducing relevant and timely feedback. Teachers in DoDEA schools now see the results of interim assessments in as little as two weeks. As the system processes and data flows are refined, Brady sees test results being available to teachers within days.
“The end-of-year summative assessment is important, obviously,” Brady said. “It’s a very good after-the-fact measurement as to what you did, and it can help you prepare for the following year. But when you’re looking at improving student achievement, it’s our belief that you need to get the results to teachers as the year progresses. The faster the interim results can be brought back to those teams of teachers, the faster they can make the necessary changes.”
Brady said DoDEA is still rolling out interim assessments at schools worldwide and there are still questions that need to be addressed in the months and years ahead. But he is confident that interim assessment will benefit students.
“Interim assessments, I think, are the key to student achievement and improvement,” he said, “and so that’s what we’re doing this year.”