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Measuring literacy in real time

A superintendent shares an approach to assessing literacy and inspiring students to read more.

5 min read


digital learning


How can a district shift its approach to literacy from one based on state test scores to one based on real-time data? Certainly not easily, and definitely not overnight. I was named the superintendent of the 12,000-student Maury County Schools in Tennessee in the fall of 2015. Within the first few months, we launched a top-down, district-level approach that quickly gained bottom-up buy-in through school and community support. We also implemented a differentiated, personalized literacy environment that gives us the ability to measure reading not just by summative assessments but by how much and how well students are actually reading.

Restructuring with the 7 Keys

Before any of this could be implemented, we needed to establish mutually agreed-upon goals and develop a framework to unify the district and ensure that each school, as well as community stakeholders, were working toward the same vision. In my first months as superintendent, I did what I called a “22 in 22 Tour” where I traveled to all 22 schools in my district in 22 days. Experience has taught me that the best leaders are the best listeners, so I wanted to give students, teachers, principals and the community as a whole the opportunity to have their voices heard.

After the tour, we got even more detailed when we launched the Keys to College and Career Readiness data collection system to get a tangible feel from the whole community about what we, as a school system, needed to do to truly impact and energize a county with regards to education. After 10 weeks, 46 different sessions, and receiving 9,327 individual comments from dedicated educators and community members alike, offering personal input on the needs of our students was what was needed, as a baseline, for us to begin to improve educational outcomes for all students. We narrowed this large amount of feedback down to create our 7 Keys to Success. Guided by the 7 Keys, we aimed to have:

  1. All students’ reading proficiency at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade
  2. All students’ math proficiency at or above grade level by the end of the 4th grade
  3. All students’ math and English proficiency at or above grade level by the end of 6th grade
  4. All students proficient in Algebra 1 by the end of 8th grade
  5. All students scoring at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks by graduation
  6. All students financially literate by graduation
  7. All students participating in advanced placement, dual-enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning, or military prep by graduation

By generating common goals as a community, we created a level of transparency that was new to Maury County. The Keys created a common vocabulary, so everyone was able to “speak the same language” and was well aware of our district’s mission. For the first time in a long time, this district shifted its focus from state test scores and data to the kids and what they should be able to do to be truly college and career ready.

To meet Key No. 1’s mandate that all students read at grade level by third grade, many schools requested access to more books. Our elementary and middle schools adopted a personalized-literacy environment. With this personalized program we took a new approach to literacy assessment; a concept we called measuring reading with reading.

Real-time assessments allow timely intervention

When students take state exams, those scores only tell me if a student can answer a question right or not — and often come too late for educators to intervene. Our goal is to break down the limitations of basic grading and assess the details of students’ reading ability. Our teachers measure how close students are to reading at grade level and provide digital intervention if students start to fall behind. Not only do the teachers at Maury County better understand the reading needs of their students, but students clearly pinpoint where they might be struggling.

From spring 2016 through September 2016, Maury County students completed 82,276 books and spent more than 15,254 hours reading. The district has seen clear Lexile growth for grades one through eight. Enthusiasm is particularly high among third- and fourth-graders; these grade levels account for 40% of our total hours read.

With our new approach we have a clearer picture of each student’s progress and are able to help struggling reader more quickly, but one of the best features was simply getting kids to read more books they were interested in and that were available at their reading level. These students are learning to read by reading, not by taking assessments and earning points for the number of questions they answered correctly. Leaning on my mentor, my father, who retired from education as a kindergarten teacher and who always had kids reading on grade level, or above, by the end of the year, taught me a valuable lesson concerning literacy.  He said, “Marczak, if you want to get kids reading, the trick is simple; it’s just plain reading.  The more you read, the better you get.  Then, the better you get, the more you read.”

Chris Marczak is superintendent of the Maury County School District in Tennessee, where they use the myON personalized learning environment. He started his career as a classroom teacher, and accepted his first administrative role in 2005. Follow Dr. Marczak on Twitter at @cjmarczak or email him at [email protected].


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