Administrators in the Hartford School District in Hartford, Vermont, appreciate the equitable-outcome and access objectives of standards-based education. The difficulty, they say, comes in implementing assessments that not only measure student performance against those standards, but also provide the timely, actionable data educators need to actually improve learning.
Noel Bryant, assistant superintendent for the district, explains how this small, rural district has taken up the challenge. “We’ve recently developed a comprehensive assessment plan built on a foundation of Renaissance® solutions. Renaissance technologies allow us to accurately measure performance against Common Core and other standards. More importantly, in contrast to traditional point-in-time state assessment programs, Renaissance tools let us derive immediate value from interim student data to more rapidly effect improvement and continually energize achievement.”
For a district dealing with tight budgets and declining enrollment, Renaissance solutions provide the instructive data that helps administrators make optimal use of both local and federal resources. Tom DeBalsi, Hartford’s superintendent of schools, says, “Reliable assessment data allows educators to more precisely identify areas of need. The information we garner from Renaissance solutions lets us be prescriptive in applying curriculum materials—without wasting time, resources, and precious tax dollars.”
In 2014 the Vermont State Board of Education initiated statewide participation in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) program, utilizing the summative English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments to evaluate students’ mastery of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Students in grades three through eight and grade eleven take the test in the spring, but results are typically not available until late summer when students are about to change grades and teachers. Bryant says that while tests offer useful baseline performance information, SBAC assessments do not provide sufficient scope, depth, or immediacy to guide instruction. “SBAC data is very broad and does not give us district-wide achievement visibility. To ensure programs and initiatives are working, we need more frequent assessments of all students, in all grades and across all district schools.”
Working in conjunction with the district, the Hartford administrative team evaluated assessment alternatives. The first step was to delve deeper into actual data requirements, identifying information critical to decision-making at various levels. From that basis, the team developed specific criteria for a more broadly applicable solution.
One key requirement was integrated functionality to measure student performance against CCSS and to meet the assessment and reporting requirements of Vermont’s legislated proficiency-based learning model. Others included roll-up graphical reporting, and a price point that would allow Hartford to fund the solution locally.
Bryant says that Renaissance solutions meet all of these requirements and provide differentiating functionality in several areas, including graphical reporting. “While other programs did track student performance against standards, the data was much more difficult to extract. Alternatively, Renaissance reports give both teachers and administrators instant visuals of individual student and classroom progress in relationship to CCSS.
“Renaissance assessments require minimal time to set up and administer, taking just minutes compared to a seven-hour, multi-day SBAC assessment. Renaissance also offers economic advantages—upfront costs were significantly lower than competing solutions, and we have the flexibility to run assessments as needed without excessive fees.”
Visual and Accessible
Today all Hartford School District schools use Renaissance Star Reading® and Renaissance Star Math® programs for assessing and tracking the academic growth of some 1300 students. The district-hosted Regional Alternative Program also uses the Renaissance Star 360® program to monitor progress and guide instruction for 35 students with behavioral disabilities.
Renaissance solutions give Hartford administrators much-needed achievement visibility across the entire district, enabling more refined assessment of the effectiveness of instructional methods and curriculum. At the same time, individual schools and teachers have inherent flexibility to utilize data and tailor reports for local needs.
“The accessibility of information from the Renaissance dashboards makes it easy for administrators and teachers to take stock of their own progress,” continues Bryant. “We’re still in the early stages of implementation, but based on Star data, some teachers have already expanded Tier 1 instruction in their primary classrooms. Educators were admittedly apprehensive about employing a new assessment system, but since they’ve seen how easy and intuitive the application is to administer and use, they’re excited about the possibilities for tracking the impact of their instruction and fine-tuning their programs.”
Engaging and Energizing
The district mandates three annual assessments, but several schools see the benefit of more frequent appraisals. DeBalsi elaborates, “Our middle school, for example, conducted two assessments in the first four months of the school year, using Star data to track growth and place students in skill groups for intervention or enrichment. A new program—called M-block—dedicates a block of time each day for teachers to work with students in these groups. The principal reports that Star assessments can be administered in as little as 20 minutes and produce user-friendly data that teachers can immediately use to make instructional decisions and to share with students so they can see first-hand the progress they’re making.”
Star interim assessments are computer adaptive and automatically adjust each item based on how the previous item was answered. DeBalsi says this reduces both testing time and student anxiety. “Students get discouraged if questions are too difficult or bored if they’re too easy. Star assessments minimize those downsides to better engage students. Star data also facilitates greater personalization of instruction and direct participation of students in goal-setting processes.”
“We see Renaissance technology as a critical component of a balanced assessment portfolio,” concludes Bryant. “The Renaissance Star programs will help our district meet state requirements for proficiency-based learning, as well as improve student performance on SBAC assessments. But the overriding benefit is improved learning.”
DeBalsi summarizes, “While traditional testing systems can be costly and time-consuming to implement, Renaissance solutions make it easy for a small district like ours to give educators access to a wealth of timely, actionable data to improve learning outcomes. We’re able to derive maximum value from student data to invest in the right programs, target the right areas for improvement, and make the right curriculum adjustments for success. Renaissance technology is the scaffolding that helps us reach our goals for student learning.”