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Watching them grow

A school district in Tennessee sees gains in literacy, achievement thanks to its use of data.

4 min read


Watching them grow


In Wilson County School District, we believe that literacy is the foundation for learning. I’ve worked in education for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen the impact that strong reading skills have on success in academics, the workplace and life.

Students who struggle with reading are more prone to feeling discouraged during class, and may miss out on valuable learning opportunities because they feel left behind. Every child is entitled to an equitable and supportive learning environment, and it’s up to us as educators to provide it.

To meet the needs of Wilson County students, our district shifted to a data-driven approach to decision-making. Data is present throughout our culture, and we use assessment to ensure that students are on track to meet state goals. Meaningful assessment, educator support and actionable data have made it possible for us to create a compassionate environment to nurture student growth and prioritize literacy.  

Punitive to Proactive Assessment

Love it or hate it, state assessments are mandatory. Assessments aim to ensure that students are on track, and that schools are meeting set requirements. But, these assessments can feel punitive in nature, becoming a stressor for teachers and students. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act gave school systems the opportunity (and challenge) to implement their own statewide assessments and ensure that all students are college- and career-ready when they graduate. Every state has taken a different approach to defining college and career readiness through goals and indicators outlined in their state plans. These indicators range from state test scores and absenteeism to graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment. 

Last year, I tasked our administrators and teachers with the goal of truly getting to know our students. What does a student excel at? Where do their interests lie? By digging deep, from the get-go, we can address any challenges or needs later on.  

We use data to create our district’s assessments, focusing on the subject areas where students need improvement. Faculty use the results to evaluate student achievement, and to forecast growth. We compare internal results to state standards to ensure that students stay on track and intervene where necessary.

This past August, we received our annual state assessment and accountability results. Our district was recognized as an exemplary district, meaning we hit every achievement, growth, chronic absenteeism and graduation rate goal. There are 145 school districts in Tennessee, and only 20 earned the exemplary title this year. We are proud to be a part of that group.

Our success didn’t happen by accident — it was a collective effort. We attribute it to knowing students, forming relationships and using data to guide our efforts.

And we have good systems in place. Our district uses Achieve3000’s literacy platform to collect data. The system gives us a picture of students’ literacy ability and provides differentiated instruction to help fill in their learning gaps.

We also hold workshops during which teachers demonstrate how they are using data to track progress and plan interventions. We don’t assume that teachers know how to read and use the data. We make sure teachers and administrators have the resources and support they need to get the most from the information.

And it’s paid off. In 2018, we saw a 9% increase in achievement, and then a 10.4% increase during the 2018-19 school year. We moved from a Level 2 to a Level 5 district and over half of our schools have been recognized by the Tennessee Department of Education as “Reward Schools.” 

We are excited about seeing our students grow. They’re developing confidence and recognizing their own potential. This is our goal — to help every student see his or her ability to be a superstar.

Donna Wright began serving as director of schools for Wilson County Schools in 2014. Wright was named Tennessee School Superintendent of the year in 2020, and has worked in public school education — K-12 and higher education — for nearly 40 years. Under  Wright’s leadership, The Center for Digital Education and The National School Board Association recognized Wilson County Schools for its innovative use of technology.


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