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'Data room' keeps teachers, students focused on goals

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Remember the loud whistle Robert Kimball blew on the Sharpstown miracle? (Put "Sharpstown" into a search on this site and you'll get 44 hits. Put "Robert Kimball" and you'll get 42.)

As assistant principal at Sharptown, Kimball knew the numbers backwards and forwards and was the first to sound the alarm about that school's bogus dropout figures scandal in 2003. Then he took on Community Education Partners, which, he said, was a dropout factory that helps almost no one. He backed up his claim with data, numbers he got from HISD itself through repeated Texas Open Records Act requests. See Margaret Downey's account in Houston Press.

Reader Comment: We have no one to blame but ourselves for this obsessive, unfortunate focus on test scores. Our elected representatives in the U.S. Congress enacted a law called "No Child Left Behind," that codifies this nonsense at the federal level. They were able to do this because we were silent, as we often are in matters about education. Our state representatives in Austin morphed the TAKS assessment program into the STAAR assessment monstrosity as we sat by and watched silently. The only folks in our society who get fired up are the toothless, ignorant tea party folks. They may be uneducated, jug-swilling hillbillies, but they do speak up. The rest of us have sat silently while our entire education system has turned into nothing more than unglorified test preparation factories

By Ericka Mellon

Welcome to the war room at Sharps­town High School.

Labeled magnets cling to walls from floor to ceiling, loaded with data about students - their past test scores, their likelihood of passing upcoming state exams, their tutoring plan.

Photographs of each teacher hang nearby. Next to them are the average test scores for each of their classes, color coded in green, blue and red marker for high, average and low. Picture a super-size spreadsheet.

"I'm data crazy," admits Brandi Brevard, the improvement coordinator at Sharpstown and the mastermind behind the room. "You can never have too much information."

Educators talk often about "data-driven instruction" as a key to improving schools. It's education jargon, but at Sharpstown, a southwest Houston campus with historically low test scores, the meaning has become clear.

Room 233 - otherwise known as "the data room" - is the new meeting place for teachers.

There, they can track their students' progress, compare test results, spot problem areas and brainstorm ways to improve their lessons.

Principal Rob Gasparello jokes that the dizzying display of data gives him a headache, but there's no escaping the importance of the numbers. Students must pass state exams to graduate, and their scores determine how their schools are rated by state and federal education agencies. Teachers also can get bonuses or pink slips based on how their students do.

Improving, but ...

Sharpstown, in the Houston Independent School District, landed in the hot seat in 2010 after two straight years of earning the state's lowest rating, "academically unacceptable." HISD Superintendent Terry Grier placed Sharpstown in his reform program, called Apollo.

Sharpstown improved enough last year to come off the unacceptable list, but many students' scores are too low to be deemed ready for college.

"We've always had the data," said Brevard, a longtime math teacher who joined the Sharpstown staff last summer. "But my goal in doing this is, it's very visual. Teachers can come in and see it. It's not just paper sitting there."

Designing the data room cost $6,000, Brevard said. For Gasparello, it's worth it as long as it helps teachers improve their skills.

"It can look nice," he said, "but if this doesn't change the way we do our instruction, then it doesn't mean anything."

Analyzing results

After students take a common test, their teachers gather in the data room to analyze the results. Brevard breaks down the scores by the different concepts tested.

Math teachers, for example, can see whether their students struggled with solving equations. A column of red numbers makes the point clear: Most students failed.

"It helps us focus our lesson plans," said Donna Morrison, a social studies teacher with 13 years on the job. "We're not reteaching subjects they're doing great in."

Teachers also can check out which students may need more attention this year because they barely passed the state exams last year or are close to scoring at the higher "commended" level. Brevard created a magnet for each student, and it shows the number of questions each scored above or below the passing rate.

Because schools are held accountable for how different subgroups of students perform, the labels include colored dots to indicate students' race, family income level and other factors. Students are listed by a unique number to protect their privacy.

The data room has caught the attention of other principals. Tim Wainright, the principal of Westbury High School, said he plans a similar space on his campus.

"To have a room, it really brings it into the realm of, 'This is your work. These are your kids. They're assigned to you,'â" he said.

Changing the culture

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a critic of standardized testing, said studying data is important, but school officials can take it too far.

"Good education has always been data-informed," he said. "Teachers gave weekly spelling tests to see if kids were mastering that information and changed their instruction. The problem with this kind of data-driven or data-controlled approach is that you end up focusing only on what the tests measure. It often leads to gamesmanship like focusing on the 'bubble kids,' who are just below the proficiency level."

Gasparello emphasized that a data room won't help if the culture on campus doesn't change. He has worked to hire teachers with high expectations for the mostly low-income, minority students. He promotes higher education, plastering the school hallways with college banners.


— Ericka Mellon
Houston Chronicle





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