HORSHESHOE BEND — Cora Larson’s gut-check moment hit about three years ago.
Horseshoe Bend Elementary earned a two-star rating on Idaho’s five-star accountability system. It wasn’t good news for a school where Larson attended and began her own teaching career.
“We weren’t even sure why we had a two-star rating or what it meant and we didn’t know how to get out of a two-star rating,” Larson said. “We were muddling around trying different things.”
Pretty soon, all the confusion and all the tears gave way to a realization.
A transformation was needed in Horseshoe Bend, and it would take buy-in from everyone — administrators, teachers, students and parents — to move the needle.
It also took a heck of a lot of data.
Larson, now the elementary school’s lead teacher and Title I director, partnered with education consultant Amber Pearson and Horseshoe Bend’s administrators to devise a new data-driven approach to instruction.
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The district invested in an additional new assessment test, the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP test). Last year, they began testing elementary school students with the MAP test three times a year.
Based on reams of data from the first two tests, Larson and other teachers now had a more-detailed understanding of where students were at achievement-wise, and where skills deficiencies lied.
“It was a cultural change,” Superintendent Dennis Chesnut said. “It was a learning curve, not only for us as educators, but parents as well.”
Horseshoe Bend administrators also revamped their daily schedule.
Now, every day, students participate in a 30-minute intervention period where all students are broken down into groups of no more than three or four to practice the skills they lag behind on.
To overcome staffing limitations, the district turns to para-professionals and volunteers through programs such as their grandparents-in-the-classroom project.
“(The new approach) helped us realize we didn’t have clear, consistent thorough and specific data,” Larson said. “We were working very hard, but we weren’t working in a smart direction with really accurate data about our students.”
Based on new MAP test data, teachers like Larson provide “surgical level intervention” on specific skill gaps.
On Wednesday, some first graders practiced their “th” sounds,” while others practiced pronunciation on a list of 100 words.
On another day, students may be drilled over the difference between “two,” “to” and “too” or “there,” “their” and “they’re.”
Two of the biggest roadblocks Larson observed were a reluctance to deviate from the status quo and uncertainty about data.
So they flipped their perception of data on its head. Instead of looking at data as a way to punish or a way to quantify where schools fall short, folks in Horseshoe Bend look at data as a strategy guide to the areas where they can help students improve.
“We really had to take an unflinching look at it and put aside any excuses,” Larson said. “(Making excuses) was not OK. We have to do everything we can for each student without having any excuses. “
Sure, enough, improvements arrived within the first year. Idaho no longer uses the five-star rating system so school leaders looked to the MAP data for growth.
During the 2015-16 school year, Horseshoe Bend’s second graders recorded median conditional growth in reading in the 97th percentile nationwide.
For first grade, reading growth was in the 92nd percentile nationwide.
For third grade, it was the 94th percentile.
Now data isn’t just bad news. It’s evidence of good news — the beginning of a turnaround in Horseshoe Bend.
And Larson expects that good news to carry over to state tests such as the Idaho Reading Indicator.
The data-driven approach has been so successful that Larson used the approach to write Horseshoe Bend’s reading remediation plan under a new statewide literacy initiative.
On top of that, Chesnut is considering using data to transition away from traditional report cards that award elementary students a seemingly arbitrary “S” or an “S-minus.”
In the not-too-distant future, Horseshoe Bend Elementary students may bring home multi-faceted, data-driven student achievement portfolios that replaces “satisfactory” marks with achievement results, growth rates and skills fluency benchmarks.
“When you see the results, you can’t deny the fact we’ve seen a lot of improvement,” Chesnut said. “Seeing that growth has helped with the buy-in.”