Recent years have seen the nation's high school graduation rate climb to an impressive 83.2%. For many schools and districts, intervention and RTI programs, which identify struggling students and help them catch up or recover credits, have played a significant role in those gains.
Carol Martin, director of instruction and intervention at Sylacauga City Schools in Alabama, is among those who have had a hand in these programs — and seen their benefits — firsthand. "It’s paid off for us and we’ve made a lot of good gains," she told Education Dive recently at the Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando. "That is one of my main focuses in my job: RTI and how to make it better, and what tools do we need and what results are we getting with all of the schools."
Over the course of our conversation, Martin shared how data analytics plays a role in those efforts, how to get parental buy-in and other best practices.
EDUCATION DIVE: How has data been used to inform and implement things in your district, like the Saturday school program and “Lunch Bunch”?
MARTIN: I think it’s very important to have the data accessible to everybody and to make it user-friendly for parents and students — everybody.
We always say that we start with the data with the students so they have their reports all the time. They have the data folders. We all speak the same language with the data. All the teachers at every school, we understand what our formative data is telling us so then the students can explain their progress to you. And the parents can, too. They’re very familiar with our reports.
We use Renaissance STAR Enterprise math and reading tests across the system so that everybody’s speaking the same language. Everybody knows what a growth percentile is expected. We know what it means if a kid is in the blue range — blue or green or red. We just place a lot of emphasis on that, that the students have to put their hands on their own data, and then the parents have to be very comfortable. If a parents comes to a conference or something, we’re going to have those reports out on the table. By the time the RTI team gets it, we are really making decisions that are data-driven, as well as looking at everything else about the child.
But I think your question was about, even at the system level, when we see the growth data not happening in a classroom or a grade level or a school, then we can step back and say, “What group are we missing? Where’s our gap group?” And we can put those interventions in place as a system. We do system data meetings, too, so all of our principals know each other data. We’ve really, I feel like, got the whole picture. Everybody’s part of it.
What are the different ways that you gather the data that you use?
MARTIN: All grade levels will have a benchmark at the beginning of the year, and that tells us our loss from over the summer so we’ll know exactly where the kids are starting when they come in the door. We follow their growth during the year. If they are below benchmark, we’re going to do a lot more assessing in following that growth. The growth model is one of our favorites.
We can tell how much our third-graders grew, and then we can follow them all the way through the system. In fact, we looked at this at a reading team meeting for the system the other day. Grade reps from K-12 were in that meeting. And we all studied our third-grade data … and we looked at our eighth-graders, and we looked at how much they grew every year. So we’re looking for that growth in every classroom with every teachers.
We like the growth data because they’re compared to their peers in the nation. Every assessment doesn’t have that, but again we like the STAR because they’re compared to their peer group. They all started on the same line when they entered school on that level. You’re really not measuring it against a national “normal” benchmark. You’re measuring whether that kid is moving. We just think that’s so important as a system.
In some states and districts, there’s been some parental pushback about data use. What are some of the ways your district has eased concerns around that?
MARTIN: We have data workshops for parents, and assessment workshops, where we put all the data on the table for their child. I think you have to make it personal. I believe we get uncomfortable when we don’t have our own data in our hands. If parents can see a report telling exactly where their child grew, on what skills and what the percentages are — what parent doesn’t wanna know that? I think it makes them more comfortable when we say, “OK, now here’s the third grade data, and this is where your child falls. And it’s so important that you know this.”
Some assessments now have an opt-out clause, where a parent can opt their child out. But I can just about talk them out of it every time because I’m like, “Why would you not want this data on your child? It’s going to be so important to see what happens to them in the future.”
I believe you have to do more of that. You have to have the parents in the room. You have to have them at the table looking at the data with you, because that takes the mystery out of it — like there’s something wrong with a piece of data. Instead, everybody has to own the data.
Over the last several years, there’s been a lot of focus on how the high school graduation rate has risen nationwide. How important do you think the use of data is in the continued growth of that rate, especially with RTI programs for students who have fallen behind?
MARTIN: You have to have it. If you don’t know where those kids are in first grade and sixth grade and eleventh grade — I get to go to every RTI meeting in our system, so I hear about the kids all the way through. And I think that’s what you have to have to ever get a handle on, with the end in mind, the 12th grade.
We say we do everything 12-K instead of K-12, because everything we do is starting from graduation and then we work backwards. So like in our reading team the other day, we start with the ACT and then we come all the way back down with the skills. You’ve gotta have the whole system look to get the results in the end.
For instance, with our RTI, we measure our retentions each year. We have had as few as zero eighth-grade retentions, and that’s that transition year that’s so important. If you tell me your ninth grade retention rate, I can pretty much tell you your graduation rate. Everybody in the system has to know that. You have to know how many of your third-graders can’t read. Everybody has to know it, not just the third grade.
I really think that’s the strength — when you share the data across the system, everybody knows how many eighth graders did we retain, how many ninth graders did we retain. And every year, of course, we’re trying to make that zero. But we’ve come all the way up to a 93% graduation rate, which we’re very happy about. We began several years ago at like a 78%, which was about the rate our state has risen so far in Alabama. Right now, we’re at 93%, and I have to say I think it’s because we follow the data. We follow the students.
If you do not have it, you’re just waiting for the end. You’ve heard of assessment as an autopsy? You’re just waiting to see what happens instead of being proactive with growth.
What are some best practices that you would recommend?
MARTIN: Having a sound RTI structure in the system, certainly. But I think that each school has to create its own method. A middle school RTI team does not function the same way as our early learners RTI team does. I think each school needs to be able to develop their own processes within the school — maybe not have a notebook or a “cookbook” of the way they have to do it. That’s really helped us. Each one of our teams is very different.
And each school needs to be able to develop its own intervention processes and really be creative. Some of the ones you mentioned — like “Lunch Bunch” or “Late Night” — come from the schools that said, “What do our kids need the most?”
I’ll give you one other example. Our Saturday school is very strong throughout the system. We have a wonderful “Success on Saturday” program. But the high school did not feel like the right kids were participating the way they wanted them to, and the kids who needed it would do better in the afternoon or evening. So now we have “Twilight School” at the high school as an intervention group to make sure the kids have that additional time to get their work or learn — whatever their needs are — in the evenings. They chose that instead of a system-mandated type of intervention. We’re constantly looking for different ways to intervene with kids.