Imagine sitting in your sixth-grade classroom at the beginning of the school year. Your teacher tells you that you are about to take a very important test and to try your best. You sit for over 45 minutes, answering many questions, most of which you don’t know how to answer. After the test, you are given a score on the screen with no additional information. Your teacher asks you to take out a book and to silently read while others finish around you. Once everyone finishes, students are instructed to complete the next lesson of the day on the board about social studies. There’s no talk about this test or its significance until the next time it’s given midyear.
Unfortunately, this is the experience of many students when taking benchmark tests. Students sit for long periods through an adaptive test that challenges students at their “just-right” level. This means that students miss many of the questions, since they’re just out of reach. The algorithm figures out students’ exact levels in reading and mathematics. While artificial intelligence can be very helpful, the scores generated don’t mean anything without context.
Reimagining Data Collection
In Warwick, Rhode Island, the Curriculum Team for the public school system realized that the above experience isn’t a best teaching practice. Students thrive on feedback that is timely and specific. Asking students to take a grueling benchmark test three times a year without understanding the “why” behind it is an exercise in futility.
Why not challenge students to set goals for themselves once they understand the score and their strengths and weaknesses within tested domains? The team put their hypothesis to the test and started having data chats with students in schools K–8.
The concept behind the data chat is simple: Sit with a student 1:1 for a few minutes, nothing too long or complicated. Show the student their score, explain the score in detail, and ask the following questions: What makes you proud about your score? What would you like to improve? How will you achieve that goal? (Provide some examples of ways to improve if students have trouble coming up with ideas.)
We also invite parents and guardians into the conversation by sending home paper copies of their student’s scores and explanations of what they mean.
Addressing Teachers’ Concerns
Some teachers in our district were leery of this process at first, imagining that it would be very time-consuming. However, they were able to enlist support professionals within the building to either help with data chats or work with the rest of the class while they had conferences with students.
At the middle school level, some teachers got creative and had students fill in their information first, before having conferences, shortening the time needed for data chats. You can see a sample of a middle school data chat form. We use i-Ready for our benchmarking K–8, but this form can be adapted for any type of benchmarking assessment.
Teachers were also concerned about speaking to students who struggled with the test. Some did not want to have difficult conversations and possibly hurt their students’ self-esteem. However, teachers soon realized that students weren’t as concerned about their scores as they were about how to improve. Students not only set goals for themselves but typically wanted to reach for stretch goals to help close the gap between their scores and those of others around them. The students who struggled the most seemed even more motivated to work to improve their scores throughout the year.
The Results of Data Chats
Teachers have already started to see the data chats pay off—students are beginning to take ownership of their learning and are working hard on the “MyPath” work in i-Ready, which helps prepare them for the next benchmarking test and related standards.
Schools in the district have created extrinsic rewards for students according to the number of MyPath lessons passed during the school year. After doing a correlation analysis, we found that students who focused on the MyPath lessons increased their state testing scores considerably. For example, three of our elementary schools were able to increase their ELA state testing scores by 12 percent, 14 percent, and 17 percent. We have not seen growth this high since the start of state testing. In math, students increased their scores by 11 percent, 8 percent, and 10 percent at three elementary schools; 9 percent at one of our middle schools; and a whopping 21 percent at another elementary school—the highest growth rate in the state.
Keeping these positive results in mind, principals have created rewards that best fit their schools. Some are tying the MyPath lessons to field day and fun assemblies; others are rewarding students with luncheons and pizza parties. Regardless, we are thrilled to see the momentum that has been created with data chats. The intrinsic motivation that comes from individual goal-setting conferences is creating a sense of engagement and a desire to work harder during the school day.
We must give students feedback and clarity on the work that we are asking them to do. We need this feedback and clarity as adults and would be distressed if we were asked to take a major test without any feedback or explanation about the results afterward. Imagine taking an IQ test and finding out your score but never being given a comparison with an average IQ. Or, imagine taking a college entrance exam and never hearing back about the score or application.
If our goal as educators is to prepare our students for college, careers, and the real world, we have to take steps to make our educational system mirror what happens outside of classroom walls. Setting goals is an important part of life, and we can teach our students how to set and work toward them with steps that are concrete and attainable. All students need is our guidance to start them off. Data chats are a simple way to make this happen.