Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 6


Part C of the state’s Race to the Top application deals with the state’s data system, something that is a main focus of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top effort.  The thinking seems to be that schools and school districts need to become more data-driven, using information on student performance to inform such things as curriculum development, teacher training, and staffing decisions.

The first section of Part C deals with whether the state’s data system has its needed elements already in place. The elements needed, according to the feds, are those included in the America Competes Act, which are cataloged by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC). Maine’s data system, the Department writes vaguely, has “a majority of all ten elements” identified by the DQC.  The state declines for whatever reason to actually state how many of the elements its data system has, which, according to the most recent survey by DQC, is seven out of the ten. According to DQC, there are 32 states with more complete data systems.

The Department argues that it has added some capabilities recently, such as ability to match student achievement data to individual teachers, but it is safe to say that Maine is trailing much of the nation on the capacity of its data system.

How that data is to be made available for use by “stakeholders,” including the public, is the subject of the second section of Part C.  The state claims in its application that its Data Management Team is busy, as it has been for some time, working with school districts to get the data system fully implemented. Among the features of the system that the Department highlights will be the capacity to track student achievement all the way to the post-secondary level and the ability to use student performance data, linked with individual teachers, to “guide decisions” around “instruction, professional development, school improvement initiatives, and personal assignments.” (I think they intended to mean “personnel assignments.” This is one of the more poorly written sections of the state’s RTT application, containing, for instance, the following sentence: “Specifically, the linking achievement with teachers and schools within the EIS web-based portal.”)

Though the Department doesn’t make much of a big deal about it, the state’s new data system will evidently allow direct public access to teacher performance data “for each content area,” meaning that student scores on standardized tests, for instance, will be reported publicly on a teacher-by-teacher basis.

I wonder how much thought has gone into what effect this may have. Parents already get anxious about which of a school’s third grade teachers their child will get, for instance, but imagine what will happen to those anxiety levels once those same parents have access to data on how well the students of each teacher have done.  If your child is placed in the classroom of the habitually lowest-performing teacher, as indicated by the district’s own data, what would be your reaction?

A new era of school accountability is dawning, but I don’t know that there has been that much thought devoted to what effects it mayhave.

Part C of the state’s application concludes with some discussion of how the state’s data system will be used to “improve instruction,” and the state’s response is maddening in its lack of specificity.

The Department argues that “real-time” data is needed to help teachers and administrators make instructional decisions, and acknowledges that there is a “lack of uniformity and quality among the formative assessments” used by schools and teachers across Maine today.  It goes on to explain that in response, the state intends to develop something called “Maine’s Formative Assessment System for Teachers (MeFAST),” but neglects to actually explain what this system is or how it will work.  We’re told that “data collected though MeFAST” will “feed into an overall improvement strategy that will provide teachers with on-demand access to data,” that it will “provide teachers with frequently-updated effectiveness information,” that it will “draw conclusions about teacher needs based on student achievement data,” that it will “provide teachers with more data on their own effectiveness,” and that it will “enhance the ability of school, district, and state leaders to monitor student achievement and teacher effectiveness.” At no point, though, is this miraculous system described in even the barest detail.

Will schools now use some type of state-level assessment system? Will assessments be developed for each grade level and subject area? If so, who will do the developing? Will these assessments be graded locally or at the state level?

There are simply no answers.  There is plenty of talk about how great and important this data system will be, though. Every other sentence in this extraordinarily poorly written section of the application is some variant of “the state’s data system will have a transformative effect on schools by providing access to teacher and school level performance data.”  Okay. We get it. Data will be used to inform decision making.

But HOW is this going to happen? How will it actually work?

Given the disaster that was the Department’s Local Assessment System initiative, about which nothing is said in the RTT application, some details on how the state intends to remake the assessments used in every classroom in the state would be welcome.

Let’s hope that the next section of the application, on Great Teachers and Leaders, is better.