How Urban Montessori is using CORE data

This is a guest post from Oakland Charters.

Urban Montessori Charter School students (photo by Tai Power Seef)

When new students arrive on Day 1 of a new school year, they’re about the same age as their classmates but have various levels of proficiency. Everyone knows this. Every student is unique and has different circumstances that help determine where they are in school. But when it comes time for the state test, there is a bar for proficiency: are students reaching the state standards, or are they not?

We also know many students who have not reached the state’s standard worked incredibly hard and may have made huge gains over the course of a school year. Their educators tapped into something that works. Their schools, serving a large percentage of high-needs students, may be on to something.

This is where the new “Academic Growth” indicator for the CORE Data Collaborative can be especially useful: it gives as clear a picture as we have of the impact of the teaching at a school. Who the students are and the schools they attend matters less. Only how much progress they have made compared to their peers.

“I love the growth point because it compares our progress to the progress made by similar students in similar schools,” Urban Montessori Head of School Krishna Feeney says. “That is something that is easier to digest for families. It’s like, ‘We were here and this is how much we’ve grown in each of these areas compared to similar students in similar schools.’ And that is something our community is asking for.”

Urban Montessori is a locally grown Oakland public school and one of 27 Oakland charter schools that participate in the CORE Data Collaborative (all 87 district-run schools participate). CORE began in 2010 when California’s large, urban school districts came together around new academic standards and training for teachers and administrators.

The collaborative, which includes the school districts of Oakland, Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana, secured a waiver from No Child Left Behind regulations in 2013 to evaluate schools on more than just test scores.

The more holistic way schools are evaluated through CORE includes data on student-level academic growth, high school readiness, students’ social-emotional skills and schools’ culture-climate (which is taken through surveys administered to students, teachers and families). CORE data also includes traditional measures of test scores, graduation rates and absenteeism also found in the Oakland Public School Report Card and California School Dashboard. CORE then provides an index of similar schools in terms of proficiency and growth for which to compare.

Urban Montessori Charter School students (photo by Tai Power Seef)

The kind of data CORE provides is especially useful for a school like Urban Montessori which uses a non-traditional school model. For example, Montessori philosophy stresses the importance of three-year cycles (same classroom environment for three years rather than one), which doesn’t exactly line up with California’s standardized test-every-year system.

Feeney said an especially exciting piece of the CORE data for the Urban school community was seeing a huge jump in the growth data for its new middle school students (this is the first year Urban has had an 8th grade class). The students now in middle school began at Urban on Day 1 of the school and have been through two three-year cycles: 1st-3rd grade and of 4th-6th grade.

“It’s making us wonder and hope — we don’t have enough data yet to say it outright — once we’re hitting middle school, it’s all falling into place,” Feeney says. “Those kids who are now in middle school have been here since Year 1, and they’re able to bring it together and demonstrate that on a state test even better than our younger students.”

CORE data is shared with school administrators and is not publically-available, so it’s up to Feeney and Urban staff to make sure the school community is aware of what this data is saying. Feeney has shared the data with the board, presenting charts, graphs and trends to the board’s academic committee and full board. Part of that is explaining the growth model and how it’s different from “status” and “change.”

“Our work is to be asking questions and hold the school accountable for learning, bringing back lessons and strategies that are working,” says Greg Klein, the Urban Montessori Board Chairperson. “As a board member, we care about a lot of data points: we want to know the status and percent of students who got all the way to grade level standards, and we want to know that broken down by subgroup. We also want to know how that has changed year over year. And the third part of understanding how the school is doing is growth.”

Growth, Klein says, is especially important. “The way that I think about growth is as a leading indicator,” he says. “Multiple years of high, above-average growth is ultimately going to move the needle on percent proficient.”

Feeney says that because the data is so new, the school is figuring out how best to use it. “It’s really useful and interesting for me to go through and compare ourselves to other similar schools,” she says, “and it’s on my radar to find ways to connect and figure out what they’re doing and how they’re using the data.” She would like to empower educators and the school community to interact with the data, too.

“For me, I’m continuing to figure out how to use the information to share with the community something that shows where we started and where we’re going,” she says.