Leverage data to close achievement gaps
Tim Cariss and Ted Sullivan
July 18, 2019

When you think of data, what comes to mind? For most, visions of numbers and complicated formulas are raised. But at our district, data has a friendlier meaning. We’ve implemented a data-driven culture to close the student achievement gap, increase educator independence and involve parents in the learning process.

Through an effective timeline, teacher participation and evaluation, we’ve had success leveraging data to work towards student equity and success. At Chico Unified School District in California, we believe all students are entitled to a caring learning environment, making it a priority for us to make changes and adapt to meet these needs.                                

Identifying the need

In our district, we have students from all different backgrounds, each with a unique story to tell. We recognized that in order to best serve each student as an individual, we needed to find a way to get into the core of the student learning experience and see where we could make changes.

A district leadership council made up of teacher leaders from our schools was formed, with the mission to bring change through collaboration and open discussion. It was discovered that a good starting point would be to evaluate our district’s formative assessments, and later to use assessment data to inform course placement selections for students.

Realizing that we needed a reliable data platform, our district chose to implement Illuminate Education, a system offering access to a variety of insights in an all-encompassing dashboard.

Making the shift

We identified the need and selected a tool. Putting the plan into action was the next step. Our district started at the elementary level by evaluating assessments and seeing where we needed to improve. We used our data platform and teacher input to revamp what we report to parents on report cards. The result was an updated process that was easier for parents to understand while getting down to the core of student gains, and areas for improvement.

The district leadership council received input from all our schools on what would be beneficial, and teacher-driven assessment choices was a huge contender. This is where the shift happened, data instantly became a more appealing means of looking at how students are performing. We gave teachers the power to define their curriculum, and they gave us the ability to improve our district as a whole.

With our high school faculty, we’re making it clear that data is not evaluative, rather a new vehicle for student information to help build curriculum and assess student needs.  Shifting previous ideas of data usage has been crucial to our success; it’s a learning process, and stressing the importance of how we’re doing, not on test scores, has been key.

Seeing a difference

Since embarking on this initiative, we’ve seen a drastic shift in our schools. Students are being met at their level. We’re not forcing the same curriculum on students, ignoring ability level or background. Instead, we’re able to offer an individualized experience for each child, where teachers can step in as needed, and parental guardians are always aware of how their student is doing.

Initially, our district was concerned that parents would be overwhelmed. But, data is playing a new role in how we’re able to interact with parents. Conferences are now a place for deeper insight, and parents can see where their student compares, as well as achievements.

Data can and should be used proactively to support students, and reactively to identify and address district lapses. We see data as a positive tool and something that is perpetually being refined and revised to suit district needs. We’re able to focus resources on the students who need them and can monitor levels to ensure that students are being placed in the right courses. Where before we were in the dark, we can now find the students who may not stand up and say, “I belong in honors English,” and place them as such. We’re recognizing student abilities in an entirely different light.

Data is more than numbers and algorithms. It has become a means to solve the crisis of the student achievement gap through unparalleled student support and a flexible teaching environment for educators.

Tim Cariss is the director of assessment & accountability at Chico Unified School District. Ted Sullivan is the director of elementary education at Chico Unified School District.

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