The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:18 pm

Better learning by tracking students

Jamie Duffy The Journal Gazette

In a pilot program reported to be the first in northeast Indiana, preschool children will be monitored through third grade to improve the preschools where they started their education.

Working with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, the United Way of Allen County is pioneering a data-sharing agreement between three local preschools and Southwick Elementary that will take preschool education one step closer to ensuring kindergarten preparedness, a predictor for school success and beyond.

The children starting kindergarten in the fall will be tracked for academic progress. The data – scores on a variety of screening tests – will go back to the preschools so they can improve their educational programs. 

"All these child care programs would love to know how these children are doing in school and what could they do to improve outcomes for the children in the future," said Jeanne Zehr, director of community impact at United Way and a former Southwick principal who is one of the leaders behind the data-sharing agreement.

"Right now every school in Indiana does something different for incoming kindergartners and Gov. (Mike) Pence has an early-learning advisory council that is working on a common assessment that could be used across the entire state," Zehr said. "Every kindergarten would give the same assessment." 

While Zehr is a member of that council, contracts like the one between East Allen County Schools, where Southwick is located, and the three preschools will pave the way for state data tracking, she said.

The pilot program is a first for northern Indiana, said Ryan Twiss, executive director for The Big Goal Collaborative, an arm of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which has pushed for this kind of data sharing. Paige Krouse, continuous improvement manager with the Collaborative, wrote the contract that the EACS board approved in December.

Zehr said data-tracking cost would be minimal. 

"Data sharing of this sort is the brass ring for education professionals, particularly early childhood educators, and it’s a major goal of the Big Goal Collaborative to facilitate this type of information sharing so that our providers and educators can make data-based decisions about improving on their own practices. It may not be the first of its kind anywhere, but it is a landmark moment for northeast Indiana," Twiss said in an email. 

Improving the quality of preschool experience in northeast Indiana is part of an overall Big Goal Collaborative focus on educational attainment. The ultimate goal is to increase the percentage of the region’s adults who hold post-secondary certifications or degrees to 60 percent. Currently, that statistic is 37 percent. 

By collecting data, preschool administrators and teachers can see where their programs’ strengths and weaknesses lie and change them to prepare their students even better, educators said.

"We can truly prepare them for the next educational stage," said Greta McKinney, director at the MLK Montessori school on South Anthony Boulevard, whose school sends about 15 students to Southwick each fall. "When you build those relationships and those bridges, that will make those children education-strong."

The incoming kindergarten assessment would typically cover recognition of letters, letter sounds, numbers, shapes, colors and reading some simple words like "cat," said Rachel Remenschneider, a Southwick instructional K-2 coach and English learner instructor. Children might also be asked to draw a person and write their name.

There are also management skills for incoming kindergartners that are important: learning how to stand in line, how to sit on a carpet and how to eat in a cafeteria setting, Remenschneider said.

Kathy Lehman, director at Children’s Village, also on South Anthony Boulevard, called the development "exciting." Schools will be "better equipped to assess and help children to be ready for kindergarten. It’s huge." 

The third school in the program is CANI Head Start at St. Henry’s on Paulding Road, Zehr said.

Lehman whose school sent five students last fall to Southwick said the focus on preschool is having its moment, not just locally, but in national educational circles. It’s not that the schools and preschools do not communicate now, but tracking a student’s success by collecting data is part of a trend that reflects a national recognition of preschool importance.

Many schools already use assessments like DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, but the data are not returned to the preschool in a regular fashion. With data tracking and a shared information system in place, it will be the first step toward a more standardized assessment such as they have in New Jersey.

"I think it’s been a gradual uptake the last 10 years, but probably accelerating in the last five," said W. Steven Barnett, executive director for the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

High-quality preschool education is linked to higher standardized test scores throughout elementary school, a reduced chance of detention in the juvenile system and therefore, less likelihood of incarceration, Barnett said. Not only does preschool experience give children the socialization skills needed to adapt to kindergarten, but also a leg up academically in the later years, education experts say.

What school systems do with the data is also important, he said. In Georgia and Florida, for instance, where data collection has been used to track students through higher education, the schools with low performing preschool students are penalized.

He contrasts that approach with New Jersey where preschool students in 31 school districts with high levels of poverty have been tracked since 2001. 

"New Jersey really has a continuous improvement program," Barnett said. "The information goes back to teachers, back to teacher coaches. It goes back to school districts and the idea is that you have to improve the system at every level, beginning with the teacher in the classroom."

In Indiana the pilot program would require parents to sign a FERPA, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, form to allow their child’s scores to be kept in confidence; in New Jersey, parents do not have that option, but "the state keeps a very, very tight control over that," Barnett said. 

"When we look at test scores all the way through the fifth grade, children are scoring higher on the language arts, math and science," Barnett said. "They are less likely to have failed and be held back."


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