Tools for Reform: How a Failing District Used Data to Elevate Student Learning

Feb 22, 2012
  • Description

How can teachers use student assessment data to improve student learning and target their individual needs? At the Creighton School District in Phoenix, Arizona, educators wanted an assessment system that could guide teachers to make the best instructional decisions for each child. There was urgency for the task: In 2008, the Arizona Department of Education had designated Creighton as a failing district, slated for state takeover. Six of its nine schools had been labeled "Underperforming" and one as "Failing to Meet to Academic Standards."

As a high poverty, inner city, elementary and middle school district, Creighton faced an enormous challenge. So in 2008, it launched a reform initiative that led to a remarkable turnaround: Today, eight of its schools have been relabeled "Performing Plus" and one is "Highly Performing," based on Arizona Learns achievement profiles. Creighton is no longer a failing district. How did Creighton achieve this dramatic improvement? A key ingredient for their success, say district leaders, was changing how they assessed students and, more importantly, how they analyzed results to fine-tune instruction. "This district," says Dr. Lynne Spiller, Creighton's Director of Research and Evaluation, "believes profoundly that there is no reason to assess a child if you are not going to use the data to determine the best instructional decisions for that child."

Integrating assessment with instruction and curriculum was a cornerstone of the district's reform plan. Creighton wanted to build a system that gave classroom teachers immediate data—not just a test score but assessments that were diagnostic, showing student misconceptions about learning objectives and how to address them. The system was developed in partnership with WestEd, a nonprofit research and service agency, and Assessment Technology Incorporated (ATI), whose Galileo K-12 Online Instructional Improvement System (IIS) provided a powerful and innovative technological component for the reform effort. Dr. Jason Feld, Vice President of Corporate Projects at ATI, describes Galileo as a comprehensive set of assessment, reporting, instructional, and intervention tools "designed to support educator goals to elevate student learning." These tools, he adds, are research-based, reliable, and aligned to both state standards and the new Common Core State Standards.

For its part, WestEd provided district site and school site staff with a full menu of ongoing professional development and technical assistance focused on improving instruction, curriculum, and assessment systems in Creighton. The multi-year reform initiative is funded by the Ellis Center for Educational Excellence, a Phoenix-based philanthropy focused on improving inner city, high poverty districts such as Creighton. WestEd and ATI drew on their shared expertise and experience as partners, working with other districts and schools on successful reform efforts.  The marriage of intensive, high-level professional development and sophisticated but user-friendly assessment tools has helped Creighton sustain their reform effort.