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Morris Area School District plans to use data to foster change

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Morris Area School District plans to use data to foster change
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In part two of our three part series about assessments and standardized tests in the Morris Area School District, we'll explore how data from various assessments are currently used in the district and how they might be used in the future.


MORRIS - Throughout the year, students in the Morris Area School District take a variety of state- and district-wide tests designed to assess student progress.

Students finished their first round of a new assessment tool, Measures of Academic Progress, in October and will repeat the tests in January and May. These results, coupled with information gathered from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (standardized tests required by the state of Minnesota), provide the district with a rich source of data on student achievement.

But data - no matter how much or how detailed - isn't especially useful unless there are strategies in place to analyze the information and develop data-based strategies to make changes.

"This whole process of using data to really figure out what students need help in and then provide them with that help is just a way of improving our school district," said Morris Area School District Superintendent Scott Monson.

Data-driven changes

Assessment data is already being used on a more student-centric level by keeping parents informed about their students' progress in school. Results from all of the standardized tests the district uses are sent home to parents, and teachers are encouraged to discuss the results during conferences.

"[Parents] are key players in the whole process," said Monson. "I believe the more they know about their child or children's academic status, hopefully the more involved they'll get, especially if there are some challenges and concerns that we can work with that particular student on."

Testing students earlier or more often can also help parents and teachers to intervene earlier to help struggling students succeed before they reach a standardized test - like the GRAD test - with serious implications for graduation, said Monson.

Monson also emphasized that the district has a strong core of services to offer students who are struggling, particularly with reading, and that the data can help to identify which students that "would really benefit from being involved in these programs."

"We're doing everything we can to make sure we're preparing kids to pass those tests to get all the standards that the state says you have to get ... and also developing some of the life skills kids need," said Monson.

However, one caution with relying on standardized tests to make decisions about students is that they reflect a single day in a student's life, said Michelle Page, associate professor of education at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

"I think that's an issue with standardized tests, that they can't be, no single assessment can be a full portrait of what a student knows," said Page.

Looking to the future

This is the first year that the MAP tests have been widely implemented in the district, which means there is still a lot of work to be done learning how to understand the data and make changes based on the results.

The MAP test is designed to provide a different type of data about students. Page characterized the MAP as a "formative assessment" - one designed to provide a diagnostic assessment of student strengths and weaknesses - rather than a "summative assessment" which just shows whether a student passed or not.

A formative, diagnostic test allows educators to alter their curriculum or instruction to help students achieve in particular areas. While it's still just one style of assessment, "in combination with your other assessment tools it might give you better information," said Page.

School leaders have ideas about where they might go next and are looking for more input and ideas. Monson said he has provided a three-module presentation about using MAP data to impacted teachers as part of the first round of testing.

"We've just touched the tip of the iceberg," said Monson, adding that it is important to make time for teachers to sit down with the data and see what they can learn from it.

"It might mean pulling them out of the classroom, it might mean hiring substitutes for half a day so all of our first grade teachers can meet and look at their data," said Monson.

The Morris Area School Board met for a work session earlier this week to hear more about what the most recent rounds of assessment data could tell them. School Board Chair Kurt Gartland said he hopes the data will help give more meaningful information about students than just grades and help inform board decisions.

Gartland cited examples where the school board has authorized purchasing exercise balls for students to sit on rather than chair or surround sound speaker systems for classrooms. He hopes that more data could help show if these purchases helped improve educational outcomes.

By starting more rigorous data collection now, Gartland said the district can get a baseline on students that could be used to evaluate future curriculum changes or see whether the district's grading policies are in line with other schools.

Monson also suggested that the data could be used to foster more collaboration between teachers. Increased collaboration could mean any number of things - re-grouping students for part of a day to focus on different skills in different classrooms or re-grouping students into groups with a smaller range of abilities to help teach more effectively without isolating students, said Monson.

"One of the things I've think we've seen over the years is a widening of the gap [between students], if you will, in schools and individual grades," said Monson. "I think that's an example of how we can use the data to work smarter."

However, a decision like that is still a "huge stretch" for the district, and plans for how to use the data to change teaching strategies or policies are still being developed.

Both Gartland and Monson also noted that any changes would need to be considered carefully, and not just based on data collected from one test at one time.

"It will bring about some changes," said Gartland. "I have no idea what those changes are right now, but working through that change is what's going to be important. As a community we're going to have to be open to different ways to educating kids."

"The potential for changes in the future exists because of our increased emphasis on data," said Monson. "We want to make sure that things are well thought out before we just jump into making changes."

Kim Ukura
Kim Ukura has served as the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune since August 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism. She earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010. Prior to returning to Morris to work at the Sun Tribune, she worked in trade publishing. She has been recognized by the Minnesota Newspaper Association for both business and public affairs reporting.