Celebrating Student Growth With Formative Data

A look at how one district is working to meet individual student needs and accelerate learning by using ongoing formative data to measure growth.

September 22, 2021
FG Trade / iStock

Since the start of the pandemic, much of the conversation around student assessment has focused on what was lost. Administrators, teachers, and researchers have largely measured differences in students’ standardized assessment or benchmark scores as compared with historical data. With last year’s state testing results available, and new students entering classrooms at a variety of levels, these conversations have increased.

A more fruitful approach, however, would be to embrace assessment to improve understanding of student progress.

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California offers an example of what this could look like in practice. To understand how learner growth varies over time, the district uses an annual Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) assessment as a summative measure and ongoing formative measures such as i-Ready and NWEA’s MAP Growth. They balance these scores with data from their performance-based assessment system, which captures students’ progress as they demonstrate proficiency on content-level learning targets and standards. 

Shifting the Focus to Growth

Nationally, there has been substantial pushback against standardized assessments because these year-end measures provide only a system-level snapshot of student performance at a single moment. They rarely address the individual needs or capabilities of each child—nor were they really intended to do so.

At the conclusion of last year, LUSD wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of Covid-19 closures on learner growth. Focusing on formative measures, the district captured reading and math data during multiple testing windows using a combination of i-Ready (K–8) and MAP Growth (9–12) assessments.

Instead of simply looking at end-of-year scores and then identifying discrepancies, the district examined the percentage of change at each point in time to examine patterns of learner growth based on age groups, schools, and subpopulations. From there, they identified strategies like small group instruction and individualized tutoring that contributed to growth to accelerate learning for more students.

As they move into the new school year, LUSD will continue to monitor this data, which can be analyzed and acted on at the district, building, and classroom levels. They will also capture progress indicators from their performance-based assessment system as learners demonstrate proficiency on core standards.

District Level: Use Data to Identify Enabling Supports

District leaders in Lindsay use formative benchmark data to look at group changes over time and understand what could work at scale. They examine trends by building, age group, and subpopulations of learners such as English learners, migrants, students receiving special education support, and those receiving homeless services.

For example, analysis of growth data helped LUSD redesign their personalized professional learning program, shifting from providing a wide range of options to specific, thematic pathways that included both online and in-person work. It has also allowed them to identify enabling supports such as small group instruction, one-on-one tutoring, and community-based wellness services that benefited learners during the pandemic.

Building Level: Leverage Data to Encourage Collaboration

According to a brief from EdResearch for Recovery, administrator-facilitated collaboration on formative assessment can help educators with their curriculum design and instructional planning, particularly when it involves cross-grade or cross-content teams.

At the building level, principals and instructional support teams can look at progress across classrooms and grade levels as well as within subgroups. Examining differences in growth can help leaders identify bright spots and illuminate areas of concern, allowing them to more easily determine which groups of students or educators might need more academic, social, or professional learning support.

In the current context, as learners enter classrooms having had vastly different experiences, discussions around formative data can help educators to better understand prior learning, clarify content gaps, communicate about individual needs, and encourage collaboration across age groups or departments.

Classroom Level: Examine Data to Personalize Learning

The word assessment comes from the Latin root assidere, which means “to sit beside.” In this sense, educators can use formative assessment data as a tool to help them better meet their individual learners’ needs. Whether using ongoing benchmark measures from a system such as i-Ready or MAP Growth, or frequent checks for understanding from real-time data, educators can chart growth over time and use that information to provide more targeted instruction and help learners monitor progress and set goals. In LUSD, educators also leverage this kind of information to guide how they identify learners who would benefit from additional instruction or enrichment during personalized learning time.

Right now, administrators and educators may feel pressured to address what they perceive to be gaps in learners’ knowledge and skills, but a singular focus on loss may obscure some of the successes from the last year.

In LUSD, growth data revealed that learners classified as English Learner, Migrant, or Homeless generally made some of the most progress, even though their average scores remained lower than the overall learner population. This data is in stark contrast to national reports. Had the district not looked at growth, they would have missed the opportunity to identify strategies that could support more students. As the school year continues, a new opportunity exists. Educators and administrators can meet individual student needs and make system-level improvements to accelerate learning by using formative data to measure growth.

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