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Beyond the Benchmark

A school district's database empowers teachers and measures what their students are actually learning.


Mark Toner

Mark Toner was a GOVERNING contributor.

As summer drew to a close, several dozen teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia, were cooped up in a conference room, asking questions -- lots and lots of questions. The cadre of educators was building banks of test questions on everything from multiplication to basic science facts. Once added to a district database teachers will use to test and track students' progress, those questions will help find answers to what students most need to know and how best to teach them.

Drill and kill? Not exactly. The focus on assessment is a byproduct of the high-stakes testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, but in many districts, the trend is increasingly to arm teachers with data and bring them together to work out the best solutions. "Teachers used to close the door to their classroom, and it was their fiefdom," says Vicki Herrington, the Fairfax school district's director of instructional technology integration. "We need to be sure they are talking to each other and working off each others' strengths."

In the wake of NCLB, two of the buzziest phrases in education reform have become "data-driven instruction," in which test results and other information are used to pinpoint areas of improvement, and "professional learning communities," which empower small groups of teachers to work together to crunch the numbers and share strategies. To actually work, both approaches require scads of information beyond the simple metric of whether Johnny can read: Can he understand root words? Syntax? Subject-verb agreement? These data also need to be gathered for key subgroups within individual schools, such as English-language learners or students who receive free lunches.

To pull together this kind of information, Fairfax County Public Schools began looking into building a data warehouse more than a decade ago, well before NCLB became a controversial federal law. The warehouse project was an eye-opener. "Some of the data was in shoeboxes in the trunks of people's cars," says Gary Policastro, who works for the district's IT department. When the decision was made to consolidate the data electronically, "the hardware and software didn't really exist to pull it off."

So the district's IT staff, using a host of emerging database and data-mining tools, created the Education Decision Support Library -- EDSL. Launched in 1998, the secure, Web-based system pulled together data from a wide range of sources -- test scores, demographic information, student records and other reports -- to create a one-stop shop for student information. Of course, few public school districts have the resources of Fairfax County, one of the nation's most affluent localities. But Fairfax markets EDSL to other school systems and uses the revenues from licensing to help fund ongoing enhancements to the system. Four other Virginia districts are currently customers.

The arrival of NCLB in 2001 had made every district pay more attention to collecting and reporting student data. But where EDSL truly broke new ground was in pushing that data out of the central office and into each of the county's schools. End users are principals and guidance counselors who, for the first time, can pinpoint which students are struggling with what subjects and generate graphical reports to share with their teaching staff.

Which brings us to the second buzz-phrase -- professional learning communities, and the need to have classroom teachers become comfortable with data. Fairfax started encouraging some teachers to learn EDSL to "try and get them to use data," Herrington says. But getting classroom teachers to understand the raw data has proved a challenge for districts throughout the country, and in Fairfax many found EDSL's tools too abstruse.

So this fall, the district is rolling out its Electronic Curriculum Assessment Tool (eCart), which provides assessment tools and other practical resources for classroom teachers. Like EDSL itself, eCart is a staff-developed set of tools built atop a Web-based interface the district's teachers already use and are familiar with. Along with the ability to track student performance, eCart will include curriculum information and resources for both students and teachers. Teachers will be able to review data that show not only how each student fared on tests over the course of the year, but also which specific standards they need to master -- rounding as opposed to multiplying, for instance. "This isn't," Herrington says, "your grandfather's EDSL.

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