Researcher finds good data scarce at DCPS
In 2008, education researcher Becky Smerdon had a plan to study dropout rates in DCPS. The idea was to look at the middle school records of students who had left high school before graduating, to see if there were any common "early warning" indicators to identify and help those at risk of dropping out.
But Smerdon, a research fellow with the Council of the Great City Schools, quickly hit a dead end. Only 23 percent of the students in her study group had three consecutive years of usable data in their files. So she switched to Plan B: trying to understand why DCPS did such a poor job maintaining and using student data. Her study of four Pre-K-through 8 schools in 2009 found that former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's vision of a school district where instruction was driven by reliable, carefully scrutinized data was a long way from reality.
Smerdon found, for example, no standard method of collecting attendance information. In some cases students were marked present by default unless specifically entered as absent. Test scores were used "to identify and focus on the students just below the threshold of passing," the so-called "low-hanging fruit" (Rhee's phrase, not Smerdon's), who could most easily goose schoolwide proficiency rates. Moreover, teachers and staff "had little time--or had no real impetus to make the time--to review, reflect or plan using data."
"In a district where most everything is still kept in hard copy only--grade books, report cards, even attendance records as required by the court, establishing procedures to collect and analyze data electronically is a mountain to move," Smerdon wrote.
Without improvements, she said, "using data to drive instruction will continue to be a misnomer, one that is spoken but not really accomplished."
Erin McGoldrick, DCPS chief of data and accountability, points out that the study was based on site visits to just four schools and that Smerdon herself cautions that it reflects the situation more than a year ago. But McGoldrick added: "We welcome this feedback, which helps DCPS continue to move toward our mission of making sure that there is a great teacher in every classroom."
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