Data informs almost everything at Little Falls Township Public Schools in New Jersey, from the electives that are offered to the extracurricular activities available after school.

“We live by data,” said Superintendent Tracey Marinelli. And she means it.

It was a data-driven culture that led to massive improvements in state math and English language arts assessment scores in recent years—and to a Lighthouse District designation from the state Department of Education last month.

In a state with more than 670 districts serving almost 1.4 million students, only nine districts and two charter schools were awarded a Lighthouse designation on July 31. The award highlights districts that use multiple measures to assess students, create individualized instruction, and increase performance among diverse groups of students.

“The aim of the Lighthouse initiative is not to identify the districts with the highest test scores, but rather districts that have shown the greatest improvement,” Kathy Goldenberg, president of the state Board of Education, said in a statement. “By doing so, we give these local educators a platform in which they can share their initiatives, programs and successes with school leaders in other communities.”

Massive Improvement

In Little Falls, a district serving 900 students in kindergarten through eighth grades near Paterson, New Jersey, numbers on the state’s annual assessment tell the story.

In English language arts, 67 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 were meeting or exceeding expectations in the 2014-2015 school year. That rose to 83 percent by the 2017-2018 school year, Marinelli said. In math, the numbers went from 48 percent to 68 percent in the same period.

Among the district’s special education students, the number performing at or above expectations in English language arts more than doubled to 61 percent. The students also gained in math, with scores growing to 41 percent from 22 percent.

A Valuable Tool

When Marinelli arrived five years ago, the picture was different. “Every teacher was functioning in a silo,” she said. “Nobody was using the same data. We needed a new start to get everyone on the same page.”

The district contracted with a company to add formative assessments, while continuing to monitor performance on summative assessments and exposing students to “the type of questions that foster higher thinking skills.” For example, after reading a passage, students were no longer confronted with a multiple-choice question offering characterizations of how the main character felt. Instead, Marinelli said, students were asked to determine themselves how the character felt and provide text evidence to support their conclusion.

“We need to know that they can take what they learned since kindergarten and apply it,” she said. The district focused on student ability to meet state standards. Formative and summative measures, “give us a gauge of the whole student.”

Along the way, Little Falls changed its approach to supporting its students with special needs—20 percent of its student population—to full inclusion. More than half the classrooms in the district now have two teachers.

Marinelli also increased professional development to equip all teachers to support all students in an inclusive classroom. The district adopted a motto: “One District. One Team. One Vision.”

“It’s a collaborative effort. We built teams that used student and staff voices to get buy-in and build trust,” she said, adding that, “when people start to see success, they want more and they work harder.”

Little Falls has gone so far as to put data in the hands of students. Each student has a data folder showing his or her progress against state education standards. Teachers use that data to create individualized plans for instruction. The next step, Marinelli said, is parent-teacher conferences led by the students—and the data.

“People think about assessment and they get afraid of it,” she said. “But if you look at it as your friend, you see what a valuable tool it is.”