Investing in Innovation: Where’s the federal Support? 

Educators and policy leaders might be forgiven for not often turning to the Federal Register for inspiration. But buried there in the ESSA regulations is a truly inspired effort to resolve one of the most vexing tensions shaping our national discussion on the role of assessment: The Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) pilot.

The IADA invites up to seven states to develop innovative, next-generation assessments that better support student-centered learning, including competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments, or performance-based assessments that better inform instruction and measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st century.

States, districts and schools don’t need federal authorization to adopt student-centered assessment models. But the U.S. Education Department (USED) does have a say when states want to use one of these innovative assessments to meet ESSA’s requirements for an annual, summative measure of whether students have mastered grade-level achievement standards, and do so meeting peer review requirements for alignment, rigor, reliability, validity and comparability.

And herein lies that vexing tension: How do we balance a need for student-centered, instructionally valuable assessments with a need for reliable common measures of student outcomes that are crucial for advancing equity; informing parents, educators and community members of how well their schools are serving their students; and identifying those schools that need additional help? If student-centered assessments are personalized to the needs of individual students and their learning contexts, how can they provide a standard measure to hold schools accountable for lifting all students to the same high bar, albeit through different pathways?

When the New York City Department of Education launched what became the first Innovation Zone in the country in 2010, our driving vision was to empower schools to personalize learning to the needs, motivations and strengths of individual students. We took a portfolio approach: schools could choose to adopt a variety of approaches to personalized learning, including competency-based models that allow students to progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery; technology-supported adaptive learning programs that meet students where they are, regardless of grade level; project-based learning models that cultivate students’ holistic critical thinking and problem-solving skills; and more. iZone schools received significant additional funding provided by Federal Investing in Innovation grants and philanthropic support to design, implement, and evaluate these new models. They were also paired with technical assistance providers with expertise in new school designs, including New Tech Network, Reinventing Schools Coalition, Diploma Plus, Big Picture Learning and others.

It’s very, very hard to do this work at scale. Recognizing this, iZone schools asked for waivers from city and state accountability requirements to allow them greater room to innovate. Our answer was “no,” as we thought the risks to students was too high. While it’s challenging work to rethink traditional schooling models, we believed that the annual summative assessments in place were the best measures available to ensure that all of our students regardless of skin color or zip code were being well served by our schools, including those who were piloting innovative new approaches.

The IADA regulations hold this same line. In fact, they outline in great detail how states must demonstrate that innovative and traditional assessments within the state produce the same summative determination of student mastery of the state’s learning standards. In so doing, they are challenging states and their technical assistance providers to resolve the tension between student-centered, locally sensitive assessments and standardized summative tests that ensure comparability statewide. Without this comparability, it is nearly impossible to ensure equity.

Congress is right to hold states and the field to a rigorous standard of both innovation and equity; by forcing the tension, we maintain our values and our commitment to equity while prompting even deeper thinking on new innovative designs.

What is missing is the recognition that these are indeed really hard problems, and states have little capacity or expertise to solve them; this is why only three states have applied to take advantage of the flexibilities under IADA. USED and federal appropriators in Congress should recognize the opportunity that ESSA and specifically the IADA has created to reconcile the tensions inherent in our assessment and accountability policies, and adequately fund R&D and technical assistance to solve them. 


Examining how states and systems are rethinking education, assessments and accountability to improve student outcomes

Decoding the Data

A Nonprofit’s Ambitious Initiative is Being Credited for Making Report Cards More User Friendly

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that report assessment data in new and creative ways. The rest of the series can be viewed on New Meridian’s website.

Several years ago, a casual conversation among a handful of leaders at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) led to a vexing question: if a parent were interested in accessing their state’s K-12 report card, how difficult would it be to find online?

Within a matter of days, officials at DQC resolved to answer the question. With a team of seasoned researchers, they embarked on a 50-state audit of education department websites. What they found was shocking. “We found that, at their worst, it took 32 website clicks to find a state’s report card,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the President and CEO of the Washington-based nonprofit.

What began as a mere curiosity, eventually evolved into the highly influential national project called Show Me the Data, which has now expanded to include Puerto Rico, in addition to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Observers say DQC’s efforts are fueling a promising trend among states toward producing report cards that are more accessible and understandable.

When it was launched 15 years ago, Data Quality Campaign was on the vanguard of emerging efforts to ensure that education data can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers, and used to inform decisions to improve success. Its efforts are providing actionable information that can be used to guide improvements throughout the education system.

Show Me the Data

Last month, DQC released results of its third annual Show Me the Data initiative. The group spent an hour per report card analyzing 114 separate data points.

“Parents and the public don’t have an hour to search for and look through their state’s report card. It’s far more time than a busy parent has for what can sometimes be a frustrating scavenger hunt,” said Bell-Ellwanger. “States have an obligation to make this information not only public, but also easily understandable.”

Bell-Ellwanger says enactment of the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), a landmark education law that returned sweeping new accountability authority to the states, motivated states to change the way they think about the value of report cards. Many states have invested significant resources into designing more user-friendly report cards with input from stakeholders. As a result, report cards are generally much easier to find and use than they were in the past.

Still, findings uncovered by the Show Me the Data campaign suggest that while report cards have generally become easier to find and use, too many remain difficult to understand.

“We often ask stakeholders to complete our scavenger hunt, which asks the reader to find a state’s report card and answer questions about the available information,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “Each time we do it, participants realize how hard report cards can be to find, and how some of the information can often be missing or buried in the document. Coupled with our Show Me the Data report, this scavenger hunt helps stakeholders realize that there’s something not quite right there and start to think about how it can be fixed.”

In its analysis, DQC found that a significant amount of relevant student data – data required under ESSA to be reported to the Department of Education – isn’t currently included in state report cards, leaving parents and other education stakeholders feeling less-than-empowered:

— 41 states do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup (like gender or students experiencing homelessness).

— 26 states do not include discipline data.

— 25 states do not include required data on the number of inexperienced teachers, teachers with emergency or provisional credentials, or out-of-field teachers.

— 46 states do not include information about teacher effectiveness.

Despite the strides that have been made, many states continue to omit other significant data that is important to parents, according to DQC:

— Only 26 states included summative ratings (g. A-F grade, five-star, 100-point, or similar) on report cards, despite the fact that most states are reporting this valuable data to federal authorities. Roughly 90% of parents report that summative ratings help them make decisions about their child’s education.

— 48 states are using a growth measure in their accountability system, but 10 of those states do not include student growth data on their report card.

— 27 states still do not include postsecondary enrollment data on their report card, even though that data is reported elsewhere.

’51 Good Report Cards’

Bell-Ellwanger says that states with the best report cards have a fundamental understanding that good data can, in fact, drive improvements in outcomes, but the promise of data is predicated on support from parents and stakeholders.

“States with the most successful report cards have a clear theory of action, and states have been intentional about what information its report card is providing and why,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “States that have focused solely on compliance with ESSA may have also shown improvement, but those report cards may not necessarily be the best in class.”

Ultimately, the responsibility for producing better report cards falls on the states, but observers say that task becomes eminently more achievable when parents, advocacy groups, and community stakeholders have buy-in. That, says, Bell-Ellwanger, requires access to full and complete data that is decipherable and comprehendible.

“Our goal is 51 good report cards for communities across the country,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “It takes critical friends like state advocates, and parents and community members, to make sure that these communities know the information is available and are able to have a conversation about what it means.”

In Practice

A look at how educators are developing innovative strategies to use data to inform instruction in the classroom.

The New Jersey District That Became a Beacon

When Elizabeth Giacobbe arrived as superintendent of the Beverly City School District in 2011, it was already on New Jersey’s list of troubled districts.

There was little in the way of curriculum, she said. Students sat in one classroom all day and were taught by one teacher, even in middle school. Some teachers were working solely from dated textbooks. Assessment was minimal and underused.

“A lot had to change quickly,” she said. “It had to start at my level. We had to do a better job.”

Today, the picture could not be more different. The district has been officially removed from the state’s “focus” list. It was recognized by the New Jersey Department of Education in 2017 as one of seven Lighthouse Districts that have used a rigorous approach to produce academic success. It was named a National Title I Distinguished School that same year.

And the improvement is being reflected in state assessment scores: In English language arts, Beverly City went from 32 percent proficiency in 2015 to 55 percent in 2018. In mathematics, students went from 15 percent proficiency to 28 percent in that same period. These are vast improvements.

Giacobbe knows there is still work to be done, but says the system is in place to get there. “We created a culture of accountability that had not been here before,” she said.

A great deal went into the turnaround at Beverly City, an urban, single-school district serving roughly 300 students in pre-K through 8th grade.

Giacobbe made staff changes and hired a curriculum director. The middle school was departmentalized. She made use of resources from the state, bringing in coaches in specific academic disciplines. Importantly, she and her staff embraced a data-driven approach to education, using assessment to guide instruction.

“We were able to have some fierce conversations about the expectations we have in our classrooms,” Giacobbe said. “We got a glimpse of what was expected of them. We found out how rigorous we needed to be.”

They used many different tools, but when the New Jersey Department of Education launched edConnectNJ in 2014, a system that offers assessment, data management, instructional resources and curriculum planning, Giacobbe and her faculty embraced it.

Along the way, a great deal of energy was put into educating teachers about the value of assessment and how to use the data to adjust classroom instruction. They grew increasingly sophisticated, introducing peer review to the district assessments so that teachers could learn from one another.

“There was a lot of training for teachers on how to use data to change instruction,” she said. “We made sure they were teaching content that students need to know.”

Ultimately, as state assessment scores started to improve, the turnaround caught the eye of state education officials. Beverly City was removed from the state’s focus list and was named a Lighthouse District, a distinction that rewards schools for setting high standards, using assessment data to identify student needs and providing the proper educational supports.

Giacobbe is now asked to present to groups around the state on how her district drove its transformation. A data-driven approach is always at the top of the list.

“It gave us the tools we needed—it is vital,” she said. “To drive the instruction that students need, teachers have to have data.”

Inside New Meridian

New Meridian Supports Classrooms Through DonorsChoose

When Tangela Kirkpatrick needed books for her first graders at Lewisdale Elementary School in Hyattsville, Maryland, she turned to DonorsChoose.

“My classroom library has a variety of books but unfortunately does not meet the needs of all of my students,” she wrote in an appeal to donors, who can use DonorsChoose to help her classroom directly. “I would like to have a classroom library that supports all of my students’ reading levels and interests.”

Her appeal attracted roughly two dozen supporters—including New Meridian—and she received the funding to build a more diverse library. “All of my students are enjoying their new books,” she wrote. “Especially, my students who are reading below grade level. For them, these books give them the confidence they need to read. They feel empowered and capable while reading.”

Since its founding, New Meridian has worked through DonorsChoose to help make a difference in classrooms nationwide.

“DonorsChoose allows us to help educators directly,” said Arthur VanderVeen, New Meridian’s CEO. “Our mission is to empower educators, and this allows us to do so on a very personal level.

New Meridian has helped fund projects in communities from Albuquerque to Chicago, ranging across a variety of academic disciplines.

For example, Thomas Wortman, a technology teacher at Sierra Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, wanted to show his third, fourth and fifth graders how to write computer code. His strategy was to purchase Sphero SPRK+ robots, which students can program using a special application.

“Now that we have the Sphero SPRKs, we have been able to introduce coding to make a robot complete tasks,” he wrote. “Through the Sphero Edu app, students learned (and are still learning) how to piece code together to make the Sphero perform commands. Students are ‘driving’ the Sphero SPRKs all around the classroom!”

Wortman said that the school’s STEM lab can use the robots in many different ways to engage students at different levels of learning.

“Once the students learned how to drive the Spheros, I created a maze in the classroom,” he wrote. “The students had to code to make the Spheros navigate through the maze! Students were amazed and delighted with this task! They couldn’t wait to have their chance to drive.”

In another case, donations were used to provide Chromebook laptops for a class at George Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago, Illinois. Special Education Teacher Kylene Young runs a resource class for high schoolers, which is designed to help them prepare for each day, address challenging assignments and function independently. The computers would be used to engage in independent study through Google Classroom and participate in online discussions.

“The current project they are working on is a self-advocacy project, where they will end up with a portfolio that they can take with them to college detailing their disability and the accommodations/modifications they will need to be successful,” she wrote. “Not only are the computers being used for creating these portfolios, they are also allowing students the opportunity to gain the skills necessary for a lot of college courses that involve an online classroom component.”

VanderVeen said that New Meridian is proud to participate in projects like these, which are designed by teachers to address the challenges that they see every day.

“Educators know better than anyone what will work in their school and their community,” he said.  “This puts resources directly in their hands and we’re glad to play a role.”

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