District creates, sells own data tool

By Corey Murray, Senior Editor, eSchool News
January 20th, 2006

When Oak View Elementary School Principal Debbie Lane discovered her fourth-graders were struggling to pass a state-mandated exam on social studies skills, she didn’t panic; instead, she turned to her computer, and the district’s data warehouse, for answers.

The results were encouraging. Though students in Oak View were struggling, their counterparts in other schools across the district actually were performing well on the test, many even exceeding expectations, results showed.

Rather than scrap the school’s entire approach to teaching social studies and start over from scratch, Lane and her curriculum people instead used the data they culled from the district’s information system to reach out to schools that reportedly posted higher marks on the same test, exchanging best-practice solutions and asking for advice about how to improve the situation in Oak View.

“We looked around at the other schools in our neighborhood … and said, ‘OK, these two schools did fantastic,’ so we went and met with the teams over at these other schools,” Lane said. “What we found out was that they were using plays, songs, [and] working with art on specific objectives featured on the history test.”

After observing these and other seemingly effective teaching methods, Lane and her team returned to Oak View, where they put what they’d learned into practice.

“The next year, we scored 97 percent on the same test,” she said, “which is unbelievable.”

Lane attributes much of the success to her staff’s ability to find and replicate effective approaches being used in other schools around the district–a feat she says would have been difficult to accomplish were it not for FCPS’s Education Decision Support Library (EDSL), a customized data warehousing and reporting tool developed by engineers in the district’s Department of Instructional Technology.

Oak View is not alone. Across the district, administrators and teachers in more than 240 school buildings and offices use the system daily to help gauge student progress and measure academic success under NCLB.

One of the largest educational databases of its kind in the country, district officials say, EDSL reportedly contains some 18 million student records. The password-protected system enables approved administrators to perform school- and district-wide data searches, sort class and individual student performance data, and create color-coded graphs and other visual aides to determine how well schools are performing–and where they must improve–to be on par with state and federal guidelines.

“The reports you can get from EDSL are massive,” said Terri Newman, a former science teacher, whose role as Oak View’s School-Based Technology Specialist (SBTS) charges her with making sure teachers and faculty understand the technology. “It’s incredible the amount of data you can access.”

By enabling teachers to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, Lane said, Fairfax County’s data warehouse–and the specially designed reporting tools that accompany it–give administrators the power to make more informed decisions, a necessity in the new era of accountability created by NCLB.

As principal, Lane said, it’s her responsibility to ensure that every student, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, measures up academically.

“The goal of EDSL is to provide a one-stop shop for all the data [educators] need to make decisions,” said Michael Carver, head of the district’s EDSL project.

The challenge, according to Carver, isn’t in collecting data, which many schools have done for years, but in finding new ways to harness the power of these databases so that educators can customize their instruction to better mesh with the unique needs of individual students.

In designing EDSL, Carver said, the district strove to make the system “as visual a possible.”

Why? “Because we know that the primary targeted audience for EDSL consists of principals. Principals are not data statisticians. Their job is to educate students,” he explained. “So we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to get to the data, make [these data] very displayable in a graphical interface, and then [allow these] data [to] be shared with other staff members using other tools.”

Now in its second generation, the system’s latest version tracks practically every form of student information imaginable, including NCLB-mandated test scores, standard population and demographic information, overall student enrollment and marks, standardized test scores, special program enrollments, and special-education data.

“Even [in] some of our highest achieving schools, once [administrators] break [the data] down into subgroups, they start identifying issues,” said Maribeth Luftglass, the county’s chief information officer, “so it’s a great way to analyze the data and make adjustments to your curriculum.”

Using the system’s web-based interface, administrators can cross-reference the data to create color-coded graphs and other visual aids for use during important board meetings, staff training sessions, and parent conferences. The data then are used to highlight areas where students are doing well and to hone in on areas of weakness or concern.

“This is exactly what you can do with EDSL,” said Newman. “You can break [achievement] down in terms of ethnicity or gender and see where those groups are failing, so that you can realize this is an area we have to improve on because of No Child Left Behind.”

Before EDSL, Fairfax County relied primarily on special group meetings and handwritten reports to analyze student performance data and make instructional changes.

But educators say EDSL is helping to streamline that process, allowing them to waste less time on administrative tasks and devote more time to the classroom, where they can further apply their knowledge, and their skill, to foster progress.

The EDSL project has garnered so much attention in recent years that district officials now license the technology to other school systems throughout the state and across the nation, Luftglass said.

After FCPS officials spent close to three years developing a patent that would allow them to market the technology to other school systems, at least six other districts have purchased the technology to help them get a grip on NCLB reporting and reforms.

The goal, according to Luftglass, isn’t to turn a profit from the technology, but to continue to develop the system so that it meets the evolving needs of the district and its clients. “The money that comes in [from the sale of EDSL to other districts] goes back into our software development for enhancement,” she explained.

To help educators and administrators capitalize on the benefits of the EDSL tool, the district has implemented a training regimen through which dedicated technology specialists at each school train at least one teacher at every grade level to create and pull reports from the system. Principals also are trained individually on the technology, a practice that ensures the school system’s investment in the technology pays off.

“Data [are] wonderful, but what we are here for is educating individual students–so we try to use the data to look at the school level [and] at an individual student level and see what we can do for each … student to make [his or her] career here in Fairfax schools as successful as possible,” said ESOL Coordinator Teddi Predaris, who relies heavily on the technology to track the progress of English language learners.

And their efforts are working, says Lane.

Back at Oak View, administrators currently link the EDSL database with another district-wide system, called the Benchmark Assessment and Reporting Tool, or BART, to determine what groups of students need additional help to pass state assessments.

“What we are concerned about … are our groupings,” Lane explained. “We are one of the schools at risk for not making [Adequate Yearly Progress] due to our African-American, special-ed, and free and reduced-price lunch kids.”

By using EDSL and other online resources to focus on those areas where students need the most help, Lane said, the hope is that educators will keep Oak View and other schools throughout the district from falling behind.


Fairfax County Public Schools

FCPS: Education Decision Support System

District creates, sells own data tool

January 20th, 2006

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials have built their own decision support tool that helps educators analyze the performance of schools, subgroups, and individual students, allowing educators to tailor their instruction accordingly to ensure that all students succeed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The results have been so encouraging that district officials have patented the technology and now sell it to other school systems to offset the costs of its development.

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