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A Data-Driven Approach to Improving Student Literacy Across All Subjects

Originally published on The Learning Counsel


When I was a math teacher, I was blown away by the in-depth discussions I was having with my students. I couldn’t have been more pleased with their progress on the material I was handing them. That’s also why I was also blown away by the fact that, when it was time for them to take their state exams, their math scores would come back abysmal. I was stuck. Why weren’t their math scores portraying their understanding of the concepts?

I was discussing my situation with a veteran colleague when she said, “If they comprehend when you teach them verbally, it’s not a comprehension problem.” I could have cried. It’s not a comprehension problem, it’s a reading problem. My students didn’t have the literacy skills to understand exam questions. Now that I had identified the problem, I needed to find the solution. I found that using data would show the district how important it is for students to have reading comprehension skills to succeed across all subjects.

It wasn’t long before I took an administrator role as a facilitator, and I eventually became Director of Teaching and Learning for my district. Using scores from a state assessment, we found that 87% of K–12 students needed reading intervention; we had an inverted RTI pyramid. I created a task force of colleagues to brainstorm and implement a plan to flip this pyramid. We started by incorporating Reading Horizons, a phonics-based approach to language instruction that allows students of all ages and abilities to decode what they are reading to dramatically increase comprehension. The program helped us monitor which students needed to be pulled for intervention and to ensure that our curriculum was consistent and effective.

We decided to be open with our students and share our data. In every school in the Watson-Chapel school district, you’ll see one of my data walls. Each wall shows the school’s goals for the previous, current, and following years. This way, I didn’t have to be present to emphasize the importance of reading comprehension. The data told that story for me. We established goals by keeping the end in mind. We looked at where we were at by the end of the previous year, and what we wanted to accomplish in the next year. Teachers used our data to drive their lessons. If our data was showing that students didn’t quite have the appropriate level of reading comprehension, they would dive deeper into Reading Horizons until their scores improved. Once their reading comprehension skills were up to par, teachers started seeing test scores rise across all subjects. Students had a deeper understanding of their test questions, and they started improving in all of their classes.

In just two years, the district climbed 15 points on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, from 35th to the 50th percentile. There was suddenly a statewide push to improve literacy skills. My task force started analyzing the effectiveness of the 27-plus state assessment exams required for our students. For those scores to accurately convey their understanding of concepts, they will need to have the appropriate reading comprehension skills. We picked out the exams that would be the best bang for the buck, and established plans for each.

Karen Fuller is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Watson-Chapel School District in Arkansas.

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