How This Rural District is Making the Most of Classroom Data

Written by Martin Yan on August 16, 2018

One of Washington’s fastest-growing school districts, Yelm Community Schools (YCS) serves the communities of Yelm, McKenna, the Bald Hills, the Nisqually Indian Reservation, and parts of the Lacey suburbs. YCS offers a welcoming, safe, student-centered, and collaborative learning environment and is expected to reach 6,300 students by 2023.

Under the district’s current strategic plan, YCS is working toward the achievement of five specific goals:

  1. Become an exemplary school district on all academic performance measures
  2. Put every student, starting in kindergarten, on a path to graduation, continuing education, and work
  3. Equip classrooms with the technology necessary to achieve at exemplary levels
  4. Recruit and retain a committed and highly trained work force
  5. Successfully manage current and future growth

In partnership with parents, students, and community leaders, YCS staff members are dedicated to helping all students achieve their full learning potential. The district has more than 1,300 active volunteers and receives more than $60,000 annually through a Business Partners Program, plus over $100,000 for its Dollars for Scholars Program for graduating seniors.

YCS wasn’t always driven by formative data like it is today. Things started to change in December 2015, when officials attended the Washington Educational Research Association’s annual conference and saw a presentation by the school district in Spokane.

When the State of Washington started using Smarter Balanced for assessments in the 2014-15 school year, student outcomes at YCS dropped dramatically. Educators and administrators in Yelm realized that they needed to focus on rigor and find a way to track data on standards using formative assessments.

From December 2015 to early 2016, Sullivan and her team researched Illuminate Education and other assessment data platform providers including Renaissance, Star, IReady, Alex, and Apex Learning.

“We were looking for a platform that offered robust tools for each level of decision making and provided immediate feedback without the need for manual entry, which would enable us to work with students from kindergarten through high school,” says Kimberly Sullivan, director of assessment at YCS. “Illuminate DnA, along with its partnership with FastBridge Learning, met all of our needs and more.”

Sullivan presented her recommendation to the district cabinet as a comparison between what Illuminate DnA could deliver versus what was currently happening at YCS. She demonstrated that the new assessment platform, in addition to providing actionable insights that informed valuable modifications in instruction, could cut down on the time spent testing and progress monitoring. What took 600 minutes with MAP and DIBELS testing, for example, could be done in 200 minutes with Illuminate DnA.

The adoption of Illuminate DnA changed the way professional learning communities (PLC) worked at YCS by supporting efforts to expand the use of ongoing formative assessments and conducting regular data meetings. District officials believed that more open communication among educators and administrators might put things on the right course. Teachers were encouraged to share their data and talk about it out in the open instead of keeping it private like they had in the past.

After its first full year with Illuminate DnA, YCS saw significant growth in many areas. For example, the third grade team at a particular school realized a 20 percentage point increase in student proficiency from the previous year. “This team is dynamite,” says Sullivan. “They’re laser focused on standards and we’re using them as a model for the whole district.”

For the future, YCS officials are considering ways in which data can help them develop an early warning system, combined with a multi-tiered system of supports, to help specific students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. “We want to start looking at behavioral data, such as attendance, and explore its relationship to academic performance,” Sullivan says. “That kind of problem-solving is the real value of Illuminate DnA.”

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