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Leveraging High-Quality Custom Interims to Move the Needle on Student Outcomes

Written by
January 30th, 2020

About Alliance College-Ready Public Schools

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is the largest public charter school network in Los Angeles. Ninety-seven percent of Alliance scholars are African American, Black, or Latinx; 12% are students with special needs; 15% are English Learners; and 93% qualify for the Free or Reduced-Price Meal Program. At the time of enrollment, Alliance scholars are four grade levels behind in reading on average.

Students and families choose Alliance schools because of the network’s proven ability to change the trajectory of students who need support and its commitment to ensuring all students are academically and emotionally college-ready. Alliance’s core values include high expectations of all scholars and the belief that all students can perform at high levels. Today, 95% of Alliance seniors have graduated high school and been accepted to college, with 73% being accepted into a four-year college or university.

Alliance helps students achieve high outcomes through a number of programs and practices, including after-school tutoring, small class sizes, additional school counselors, and an extended school year. It also ensures student success by setting high expectations for classroom educators and leadership teams. Teachers are charged with providing highly personalized, differentiated instruction and targeted supports for each student; leadership is tasked with providing the high-quality curriculum and assessment tools that are necessary for teachers to do so.

The Need for a “Just Right” Assessment System

In 2016, Alliance had adopted a new, rigorous, standards-based ELA and math curriculum and needed an assessment program to match. Led by Casie Little, their new Director of Assessment, Alliance’s assessment team began the work of streamlining and strengthening their assessment system. They separated their search into two categories: assessment content and strategy and the platform for assessment delivery. Ideally, they wanted both in a single platform without compromising on their requirements.

On the assessment content side, there was an essential need for strong alignment to both Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) California state standards assessment. The ELA department needed text-first assessment capacity, which is an approach to developing assessment items based on high-quality texts that meet a series of standards-driven criteria. The math department required assessments written to SBAC item specifications; Alliance’s previous assessments had been SBAC-based but lacked true alignment, which meant information guiding rigor and instructional practice was unavailable.

In terms of the platform, educators were looking for a solution that would provide the ability to administer assessments and analyze data with efficiency and ease. It needed to support custom data reports and Google Single Sign-On (SSO), as well as integrate with Alliance’s other platforms (e.g., student information system). Alliance vetted several item bank and assessment administration solutions. Illuminate Inspect Plus item bank and the Illuminate Data and Assessment (DnA) system best met their needs—all while living on a single platform.

Creating Alliance’s Custom, Standards-Aligned Assessments

Alliance began working with Illuminate’s assessment specialists to create the custom assessments required for their unique system. Custom interims were developed for all grade levels in ELA and math. They were designed not only to align with CCSS and SBAC, but also to match the mapping and pacing of Alliance’s newly adopted curriculum. “We wanted the assessments to reflect not only what students would see at the end of the year on SBAC, but also what had been covered so far in the curriculum,” says Little. “Interims should not be a surprise to students.”

To create the math assessments, Alliance and Illuminate teamed up to unpack complex standards and select appropriate items for different interims throughout the year; while hundreds of items in Inspect Plus might be tagged to a given standard, some items only test a part of that standard, and that part may not yet have been covered by the curriculum. “Illuminate helped us look at the SBAC test specifications to determine what does the standard look like in SBAC, and what does it look like if we only test part of the standard?” says Little. They carefully selected CCSS- and SBAC-aligned items that tested standard components covered up to that point in the year.

The network’s ELA team worked closely with Illuminate’s assessment specialists to select standard-aligned text passages that also aligned to the curriculum in genre, text type, and pacing. “It’s really important that students aren’t reading a less complex text in class and then surprised by a more complex text on the interim,” explains Little.

Empowering Teachers with Data Analysis and Custom Reporting

As part of her role, Little was tasked with developing systemic structures and support tools that would increase teachers’ ability to analyze their custom assessments and use data to inform decisions. “We really wanted Illuminate to drive teaching in the classroom,” says Little.

The network started “Data Days,” two pupil-free days following each interim assessment. The first day is geared towards unpacking the assessment and analyzing the data. Teachers sit side-by-side to deeply analyze the content being assessed and interpret results to derive insights about student learning and needs. On the second day, teachers use their analysis to plan the best next steps for instruction.

Teachers’ analysis is also supported by the high quality distractor rationales available in Illuminate Inspect Plus. For example, an ELA team might read a text from the interim, view the lowest scoring question in relation to that passage, analyze the distractor rationale, and then re-read the passage through the lens of a student who picked the wrong answer. Together, they help identify where the student likely had a misconception and discuss how that applies to their instruction.

Data Reaches the Classroom

The assessment department ran the first Data Day to model the protocol for principals and lead teachers, but schools now run their own. Each set of Data Days takes a new network-guided lens to the interims. In this way, teams are continually increasing their capacity and skill around interpreting data while deepening their knowledge of the assessment content.

Today, Alliance administers interims via Illuminate for ELA and math three times per year for all grades (6-12) and for science twice a year. Teachers are using Illuminate on a daily basis, regularly creating their own assessments to use between interims and accessing reports.

“I definitely think that data at Alliance has reached the classroom, when it hadn’t before,” says Little. “That’s happened due to a variety of factors, but Illuminate played a huge part in that.”

Bringing data to the classroom has not only enhanced teaching but also increased positive student outcomes. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of students scoring Level 3 or Level 4 (considered on-track for college-readiness) on the SBAC assessment has increased 8% for middle schools in both math and ELA and as well as high school math. Individual sites have seen up to 30% improvement in students scoring Level 3 and 4 across middle and high school ELA and math. Scholars who received custom interims saw marked cohort growth from 40% to 69% between grade 8 to grade 11 on the ELA exam.

Through Alliance’s leadership and commitment to data culture—and high-quality CCSS and SBAC-aligned assessments and custom reporting—the network has enabled teachers to track where each student is on his or her learning journey. Equipped with the right information, Alliance educators are delivering on their promise of ensuring each student is college-ready.

Illuminate supports districts and schools nationwide in creating a comprehensive assessment system that meets their unique needs. Reach out to learn more.

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Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

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