Data-Driven Schools See Rising Scores


BETHESDA, Md. -- Last fall, high-school senior Duane Wilson started getting D's on assignments in his Advanced Placement history, psychology and literature classes. Like a smoke detector sensing fire, a school computer sounded an alarm.

The Edline system used by the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools emailed each poor grade to his mother as soon as teachers logged it in. Coretta Brunton, Duane's mother, sat her son down for a stern talk. Duane hit the books and began earning B's. He is headed to Atlanta's Morehouse College in the fall.

If it hadn't been for the tracking system, says the 17-year-old, "I might have failed and I wouldn't be going to college next year."

Attacking the Achievement Gap

Montgomery County has made progress in improving the lagging academic performance of African-American and Hispanic students. See data.

Montgomery, a suburb of Washington, D.C., spends $47 million a year on technology like Edline. It is at the vanguard of what is known as the "data-driven" movement in U.S. education -- an approach that builds on the heavy testing of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Using district-issued Palm Pilots, for instance, teachers can pull up detailed snapshots of each student's progress on tests and other measures of proficiency.

The high-tech strategy, which uses intensified assessments and the real-time collection of test scores, grades and other data to identify problems and speed up interventions, has just received a huge boost from President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The Obama economic stimulus plan provides $100 billion for schools over the next two years, almost doubling the federal education budget. To qualify for much of the money, states will have to provide data showing progress in student achievement -- giving the edge to districts such as Montgomery that already have systems in place.

Because of the new incentives, systems similar to Montgomery's are expected to spread around the country. A look at the district's experience reveals the promise and potential pitfalls of the data-driven approach.

At the county school system's Office of Shared Accountability, 40 employees generate reports on such indicators as how many students take algebra in middle school or the SAT in high school. Principals, in turn, study schoolwide reports from the district's databanks to detect patterns of failing grades. Alerts of flagging performance come from Edline and another data-tracking system modeled after one used by the New York City police. The warnings, often sent via email, can spark immediate action, such as after-school tutoring, study sessions and meetings with families.

Closing the Gap

The 139,000-student district, one of the nation's largest, says the strategy has helped it nearly close an achievement gap between white and minority students in the early grades. It also says the system has enabled it to identify minorities with academic gifts earlier, vaulting many more into demanding AP classes.

Brendan Hoffman for The Wall Street Journal

Kindergarten teacher Jordana Oginz works with Adrian Perez on an assignment at Highland Elementary School. A Palm Pilot, which syncs with a district computer, records students' progress and problem areas.

Mr. Duncan says Montgomery is a model in using data to spur improvement. "They're doing a tremendous amount right," the education secretary says, noting that the system is one of only a handful in the nation that tracks the college completion rate of its graduates. Montgomery's data system should be "the norm, not the exception," he says.

But a group called the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County questions the millions of dollars spent on technology. The group says the system's emphasis on closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities has shortchanged gifted students and those with disabilities. The parents also complain that the frequent use of standardized tests, beginning in grade school, stifles creativity and is crowding out the arts.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which has been a longtime critic of standardized assessments, echoes those concerns. He says school districts like Montgomery risk neglecting broader holistic measures of critical thinking that can't easily be tracked on a database. "Education is narrowed to little more than a test," he says.

Kindergarten Scores

District officials largely dismiss such criticisms and credit the system with a number of successes. For the past two years, almost 90% of kindergartners ended the year able to read a basic text proficiently on a standardized assessment, with only marginal differences among races and income groups. Seven years ago, just 52% of African-American students, 42% of Latinos, and 44% of low-income students reached that benchmark.

Montgomery has also succeeded in pushing more students to take rigorous AP classes, an important factor in admissions at selective colleges. A computer system, using scores on Preliminary SAT admissions tests, flags students, often minorities, who have academic gifts but aren't enrolled in challenging courses. Principals and teachers then encourage those children to sign up.

Over the past decade, the number of African-American students who achieved a passing or higher score on at least one AP test rose to 1,152 from 199. For Hispanic students, the figure increased to 1,336 from 218. The number of white and Asian-American students passing the exam rose, too, though not as dramatically.

Some evidence shows that progress on the achievement gap may dissipate over time. In eighth grade, about 90% of white and Asian students tested proficient or advanced in math on state tests, compared with only half of African-Americans and Hispanics. SAT scores of white and Asian-American students averaged more than 1700, compared with 1336 for African-Americans and 1401 for Hispanics.

Superintendent Jerry Weast acknowledges the system has much work left to do. He says the system's accomplishments are impressive only when compared with what he considers poor results elsewhere in the U.S. Dr. Weast, the son of Kansas farmers, likes to tell staffers: "We are a tall tree in a short forest."

Green Zone, Red Zone

When Dr. Weast became superintendent in 1999, he raised an alarm by forecasting a coming crisis in Montgomery County. He saw two districts: a "green zone" that was mainly white and wealthy and a "red zone" that was largely poor, black and Latino, with many students who spoke English as a second language. The low-achieving, low-income population was growing fast, threatening to skew the system's overall progress, he argued.

Dr. Weast focused first on giving poor children a leg up in early grades. He pushed the school district to spend an additional $60 million annually on red-zone elementary schools. Green-zone schools get $13,000 per student, compared with $15,000 in the red zone, the district says. Classes in red-zone schools have only 15 students in kindergarten and 17 in first and second grades -- compared with 25 and 26 in the green zone. Dr. Weast also started all-day kindergarten, first in the red zone and then throughout the district.

"Red zone" Highland Elementary, in Silver Spring, has seen some of the most dramatic gains. Five years ago, the school's academic results were so poor that it was on the verge of a state takeover. More than 80% of students at the school are eligible for the federal lunch program -- a standard measure of poverty -- and 62% speak English as their second language. In December, Highland won a Maryland "blue ribbon" award as a school among the state's top 10% academically. About 92% of Highland fifth-graders were rated proficient or advanced on state reading and math tests last year -- above state averages.

For five years, each Highland instructor has kept a "running record" of student results on reading assessments, either on a Palm Pilot or a paper checklist. Not all teachers, though, have embraced the system. Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the main teachers' union, estimates that such data-recording efforts add about three to four hours to teachers' weekly workloads. So far, 11 of 33 teachers at Highland have either left the system or are teaching in other Montgomery schools.

"This is a lot of hard work," says Principal Raymond Myrtle. "A lot of teachers don't want to do it. For those who don't like it, we suggested they do something else."

On a recent morning, fifth-grade teacher Robin Weber sat with a small group of students, showing them flashcards with vocabulary. "What's this word?" she asked Natalie Somkhoyai, 10, the child of Thai immigrants. "Essential," she said slowly. "Very good!" Ms. Weber said.

Based on Ms. Weber's data entries, Natalie was found to need extra help with reading comprehension, so she spent a period in the "intervention room" that afternoon with teacher Tracey Witthaus. There, Natalie and a small group of children read a passage about a forest fire at Yellowstone National Park. "I want you to summarize," Ms. Witthaus said -- why do people need to evacuate? Natalie had the answer: "There's too much smoke."

In another classroom, 6-year-old kindergartner Adrian Perez, a son of Salvadoran immigrants, read a passage about a caterpillar while his teacher Jordana Oginz recorded his progress with the stylus of a Palm Pilot. Adrian confused the word "said" for "some." He dropped the "s" at the end of words like "shells" and "comes." At the end of the day, Ms. Oginz consulted her hand-held computer. The device calculated that Adrian read the text with 95% accuracy. Ms. Oginz planned to place Adrian in a small group with children who needed similar extra help. "I can pinpoint exactly what they need to learn," Ms. Oginz said.

Adrian's mother, Carmen Perez, who speaks Spanish at home, says her son couldn't write his own name when he began kindergarten. Now, he reads on a first-grade level. "I want him to go to college," says Ms. Perez, a secretary married to a house painter.

Other parents, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the data-driven system unfairly diverts resources from more middle-class "green" schools into the "red zone."

Parents Coalition member Heidi Dubin says her children's elementary classes in a green-zone school were too large and focused on meeting proficiency standards. She says her older daughter was advanced and could read Shakespeare in third grade, and was "learning nothing" in Montgomery schools. "You close the gap if the bottom comes up" -- but also if "the top comes down," says Ms. Dubin, an international tax-planning specialist.

Melissa Landa, a former Montgomery elementary-school teacher who is now a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, says "the amount of testing is really excessive" in Montgomery schools. "And if teachers aren't testing, they are preparing kids for testing." She believes that elementary-school children in the district should spend more time on projects and creative work and less time drilling.

Focus on Testing

School officials say the amount of testing isn't necessarily more than many other districts. The district contends that its ability to systematically track test results through its huge centralized databases helps to pace both students and teachers.

To boost students who underperform on tests, the district gives them a double dose of English and mathematics, often instead of electives such as music and art -- another initiative the parents' coalition has criticized.

Some parents are angry about a plan that is phasing out special centers for students with disabilities. As part of a national movement known as mainstreaming, they are instead being taught in regular classes. Bob Astrove, parent of a son with a learning disability, says his child flourished in the separate centers -- and just finished his junior year in college. "He needed the small, controlled environment," says Mr. Astrove, who claims the district is shutting down the centers in part to shift money to its green-zone initiatives.

Gifted students, say school officials, have plenty of challenges, through extra work in class. The district says it is now spending more on special education, not less, because students receive extra supports in regular classrooms. Administrators also say they get few complaints from parents of children who get double doses of academic subjects. The district tries, when possible, to preserve electives such as art and music classes using an extended-day program.

Dr. Weast, the superintendent, makes no apologies about spending disproportionately on poor elementary schools, saying that children often arrive with severe deficits that must be addressed. "Those who need more get more," he says.

Write to John Hechinger at