Data Assessment Considered Integral to Student Improvement

May 17, 2023
Dr. Tricia Clifford, certified coach for the Data Wise Project and Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Courtesy Photo.

There’s a pretty basic reason why educators in the Bedford Public Schools take student assessment so seriously: “They really want to help students.”

Dr. Tricia Clifford, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said, “The administrators and the teachers have spent an incredible amount of time and effort, and have been dedicated to really wanting to help students learn and achieve. I can’t underscore that enough. They have done an excellent job of wanting to figure out ways they can help students improve.”

Clifford recently was certified as a coach for the Data Wise Project, a structure that fosters “using collaborative data inquiry to drive continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students.” Data Wise is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Combined with testing in math and literacy approximately three times a year, she said, Data Wise provides a systemic, quantitative approach that helps teachers pinpoint areas that need improvement among groups and even individual students.

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When she became assistant superintendent in the fall of 2019, Clifford related, the state-mandated MCAS tests in grades 3-10 were the basis for student assessment. 

“The instructional teams discussed needing a more local assessment in reading, math, potentially three times a year,” she said.

“We would collect assessment information and use those results to tell us what we need to do with certain students, so you have an idea of what the students need help with, identify strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the things teachers can do to help students improve.

What was missing, she said, was “a systemwide kind of approach that would be more consistent, a way to take that data and analyze it and use that information to help make decisions on teaching and learning.”

Clifford introduced the Data Wise project, which takes a few years to fully integrate. Principals and instructional leaders spent two years digesting and implementing consecutive step-by-step guidebooks, then a third year working with a consultant from the Harvard Graduate School “to work with us to keep the momentum going.”

As early as the sudden arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, “we were able to use these instruments,” Clifford said. “As part of their work, the instructional groups were figuring out how to investigate assessments that they wanted to use and schedule data meetings. In the fall of 2020, we knew what assessments we were going to use when we were going to give the assessments, and who was going to be on the data team, to analyze the data – we had done the prerequisite work.”

Clifford explained how Data Wise provides a sequential assessment framework, beginning with identifying the collaborative team of teachers and specialists who will process the information. Then it proceeds to identifying material to be assessed, organizing the data, examining the students’ results, and identifying weaknesses.

Then the evaluators consider the best instructional approach to address the areas that need improvement. That is followed by an action plan and a follow-up session two months later. The results of the next scheduled testing will ascertain any progress.

Those data meetings happen two or three times a year, Clifford related, at each grade level through grade 10 involving not just teachers but also principals, program administrators and directors, curriculum coordinators, and others on staff. 

“Using data enables you to make more informed decisions,” Clifford said. “Having this be collaborative is really helpful. We have teachers who have a wealth of experience dealing with different student needs. Teams at each school are really doing this at a high level. We have people who understand how to run the process, embedded a routine in each school, so when questions or problems come up you can say, ‘We are going to come up with an action plan.’”

That could mean “change our instruction or consult with a literacy specialist” or some other response, Clifford said.  Particularly after the exigencies of Covid-19, including remote and hybrid instruction, “You would want to know: Are the students learning? Are they at grade level?” 

“The assessment identifies the child’s difficulty and the team can propose some responses,” she continued. Teachers, she said, can agree “to tailor instruction to this element of the assessment,” working with small groups of students or even individually. 

Clifford noted that at the high school, student writing is also assessed as part of the literacy component. “Ninth and tenth grade English teachers have created common writing assessments,” she related, then evaluate the result “based on our rubric.” The process at BHS is evolving, she said, and is still developing in the younger grades.

How do educators assess the assessments? “The really important piece is: are they giving you the information that you want? Are they easy to use?” Clifford said. She added, “Make sure the amount of time they spend taking tests is not getting in the way of instructional time. You don’t want them to be assessments all the time. That balance is really important.”

“People really care about students and really keep students at the center of everything they do.”

Clifford said she first learned about coaching certification from the Harvard consultant working with Bedford educators.

She worked monthly with a mentor from Harvard, then with staff members at Davis School on the Data Wise process. She also spent a week at Harvard as a Data Wise teaching fellow with educators from all over the world. The certification signifies “that you have used Data Wise as an educator and have understanding of what it is, and you have led teams of teachers.”

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