School administrators grappling with higher standards and high-stakes testing know they can no longer afford to wait until the end of the semester or year to find out whether their students know as much as they need to or should.

The challenge, however, is getting real-time data into the hands of instructional staff in a format that meets the needs of classroom teachers, department chairpersons, guidance counselors, and other school-based personnel.

Making mid-course adjustments like lowering class size, providing additional tutorials, or accelerating the curriculum for gifted students is impossible without good, solid data about individual students and various subgroups.

Why wait until the course is over and the grades are handed out to find out whether students who meet federal poverty guidelines succeeded or failed at a higher rate than their more affluent peers?

What good does it do to discover in May that a new teacher’s entire crop of eighth graders is falling algebra at an alarming rate, even though they performed well the year before?

How can central administration create intervention programs for high schools with high student absentee or drop-out rates in a timely fashion if the data isn’t available at the same time budgets are being developed?

As the accountability movement continues to change the American public school landscape, these and other data-driven questions are going to loom even larger in the lives of educators, from the classroom to the boardroom.

“Data [are] a very powerful tool, but educators need to have access to [them] on a timely basis and they need assistance in knowing how to use [them] appropriately to make decisions,” says Susan Agruso, who heads up instructional accountability for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS).

That’s why Agruso’s team developed a web-based computer program that enables staff with appropriate clearance and training to tap into student and school performance data on a real-time, as-needed basis.

Called SPARTA (School Performance at Real-Time Accessibility), the program also gives administrators and other key personnel the ability to perform personalized data reports and analyses.

“As we’ve worked to develop a climate and culture of data-driven decision-making within CMS, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of data requests coming into our central office,” says Agruso. “Now, instead of having to wait for us to run the numbers or do the analysis for them, central administrators and school-based leaders can develop the reports when they need them.”

To minimize costs for training and to eliminate the need for additional purchases, SPARTA was designed to run on equipment and software (primarily Microsoft Excel) already available at every CMS school.

To simplify the process even further, Agruso’s team reviewed a year’s worth of school-based data requests to create a series of report templates in Microsoft Excel. These downloadable templates and web pages are created on an ongoing basis every day for every school.

If an administrator accidentally “goofs up” the report, a new template with the original data can be downloaded easily. Administrators also have the freedom to create their own reports, spreadsheets, HTML files, and web pages using Excel and Dreamweaver software.

Because the district already offers Excel and Dreamweaver training in its professional development lineup, school leaders and other personnel can access these resources at no cost to the school, other than substitute pay for teachers.

The data are updated on a daily basis and include enrollment, attendance, end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, computer skills test results, competency test results (required for graduation), and achievement gap information.

Data that relate to the state’s formulas for awarding school and teacher performance bonuses are also available via SPARTA, as well as demographic breakdowns for ethnicity, gender, free and reduced lunch status, special education status, English as a Second Language level, etc.

Because of the private nature of these data, careful steps have been taken to ensure that confidentiality will not be compromised. Access to SPARTA may only be gained using a CMS computer, which is password-protected within an extensive series of firewalls.

The web address of the SPARTA login screen is known only to CMS employees who have gone through the proper channels and have received training in its use. CMS has established four different classes of access, ranging from school-level summaries to individual student data.

At the school level, principals determine which staff members have access to SPARTA and at what level, then submit their requests to Instructional Accountability, which is charged with maintaining the privacy and integrity of the data. As a final check and balance, access can only be acquired by request or invitation from Instructional Accountability.

Once downloaded, the security of the data becomes the responsibility of the school. Student-level data web pages that may be downloaded from SPARTA are prefaced each time with a confidentiality warning emphasizing the importance of data security.

CMS, which serves 108,000 students in 144 schools, has invested approximately $67,000 in the development of SPARTA, with the majority of those dollars going to staff time. Although the initial creation of SPARTA has required considerable manpower, the system is designed to run itself in the future, Agruso says.

Since its debut in December, SPARTA has been receiving accolades from principals and other users. Administrators appreciate having a consistent, high-quality format for each school with updated data, according to Agruso.

In addition, SPARTA is reducing manual labor and paper costs and is freeing up instructional accountability staff time to focus on research, data analyses, and problem solving.

“Having such a powerful tool for data-driven decision-making is helping us all become more strategic in using our resources and applying leverage in the right spots,” says Agruso. “The potential impact this can have on student achievement systemwide is simply phenomenal.”

For more information about SPARTA, contact CMS Public Information at (704) 343-7450 or feedback@cms.k12.nc.us. For more information about data-driven decision-making, see the American Association of School Administrators or National School Boards Association web sites.