How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

Better Data Days Are Ahead

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We’ve all been there, we collect data, make beautiful color coded spreadsheets detailing nearly every data point we could possibly collect on each possible child. We compare district data to state data, nationally norm referenced data against in class assessments. We highlight students’ projected growth in order to make adequate progress for each child. We look at whole class data and determine standards to re-teach. We attend collaboration and intervention meetings in order to discuss students who are receiving services and what progress is being made. We create, update, and review a school data wall. We can name multiple data points on each student in our classes at the snap of a finger. 

Face it, we are inundated with data. But are we always really looking at the data for all children and determining the next steps?
Chapter 6 “Supporting Curriculum and Assessment” made me pause and think about how important it is to take that next step in data. Jen dives deep in this chapter with some really important details to consider as literacy leaders in a building. Not only should we be tracking student achievement for ALL learners, we should carve out time periodically to review this data and determine next steps. Some prompting questions Jen outlines are as follows:

  • What are the strengths and needs of each student?
  • What students are you concerned about?
  • What students have made the most growth?
  • What observations can you make about your overall literacy data?

Jen suggests having these literacy team meetings each fall, winter, and spring to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Each person has a crucial role in the process; the teacher reflects on each student, the principal reviews the student’s cumulative folder, the assistant principal listens and takes notes for student placement, and the literacy leader takes notes on students who are still at risk of failure.

As a result of reading this chapter, I have had some really great discussions with teachers and my administration about how we can create a better culture of data REVIEW. I am excited that our staff is ready to take the next steps in data review and that we are clearly beyond the idea of just being great collectors of data. 

This is going to be a great year. Teachers are asking for the next step in our data process and are ready to take it on and make it our own, and make it meaningful. I am confident that as a result, our teachers will feel a better sense of direction and purpose. And once again, the work that goes on behind the scenes will play out better in classroom instruction, in our relationships with our students and families, and will result in increased student achievement.

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

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While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.

Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

I didn’t meet my reading goal (and is that okay?)

2016 has come to a close. Like any year, there were events to celebrate along with a few experiences we may not care to reminisce over. One event that is somewhere in the middle for me is that fact that I didn’t achieve my reading goal.

For the past two years, I have set a goal for number of books to read from January to December. In 2015 I not only met my goal but surpassed it (50/53). This past year I decided to up the ante – more is better, right? – and set a goal for 60. I ended up reading 55 books this year. Not too shabby, considering my recent move and a new job.

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Goodreads, the online community where I along with many other bibliophiles post said goals, seems indifferent to this fact. “Better luck in 2017!” is all the feedback Goodreads offers. I can live with that. The site focused more on all of the books I did read, covers facing out, along with number of pages read and related statistics.Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 5.43.01 PM.png

I guess I could have pushed through in December and quickly devoured some titles just to meet my goal. They may not have been what I necessarily wanted to read though. Also, I could have thrown in a few more books that my wife and I listened to with our kids while driving. But to be honest, I was half listening and didn’t feel like I could count it.

I’m glad that I didn’t caught up in meeting arbitrary goals. If that had been the case, I may have passed on longer, more complex works of fiction such as All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s fiction, yes, but also helped me deepen my understanding of what it means to live in a nation that does not share your beliefs. If I had worried too much about meeting a reading goal, I might not have reread and reread again Last Stop on Market Street by Matthew de la Pena. It still floors me how many ideas and perspectives a reader can glean from such a short text. If I had worried too much about meeting my reading goal, I may have avoided reading reference books about writing, such as Write What Matters by Tom Romano and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld. These are not texts you plow through. Yet I come back to these resources for information and inspiration.

If I was teaching in the classroom again, I think I would adopt a Goodreads-approach to independent reading. Students would still be expected to set some type of goal based on number of books. But it would not be the function of independent reading. We would look at different data about their reading lives, including:

  • Variety of genres explored
  • Complexity of texts from fall to spring
  • Favorite authors, titles and series based on ratings and reviews
  • Classmates whose reading habits influenced their reading lives
  • Books on their to-read list
  • How they feel about reading in general

This data seems a lot more important than the number of books read. I do believe volume in reading is important. But what leads someone to read? We still get reading goals like number of books read confused with purpose. The purpose of a reading goal is to make a more concerted effort to read more and to read daily. The idea is that through habitual reading, we will discover new titles, authors and genres that we come to enjoy and find valuable in our lives. I think about how I got hooked on reading: in the 3rd grade, our teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. No reading goal, amount of guided reading or immersion into a commercial program did that for me.

As teachers take stock with their students during the school year regarding reading goals, I sincerely hope they look beyond mere numbers and work with their students so they can understand them as readers. Data that only measures quantity and disregards quality tells us very little about who our students are and who they might become as readers.

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Suggestion for Further Reading: No AR, No Big Deal by Brandon Blom

Learning Management Systems: Who are they for?

A learning management system, or “LMS” is defined as “a digital learning system” that “manages all of the aspects of the learning process” (Amit K, 2015). A teacher can use an LMS for a variety of classroom functions, including communicating the learning objectives, organizing the learning timelines, telling the learners exactly what they need to learn and when, delivering the content straight to the learners, streamlining communications between instructor(s) and learners, and providing ongoing resources.

An LMS can also help the learner track their own progress, identifying what they have learned already and what they need to learn (Amit K). There are many options for learners to share their representations of their understandings within an LMS, including video, audio, images and text. In addition, discussion boards and assessment tools are available for teachers and students in most systems.

This definition and description of your typical LMS leads to an important question: Who is the learning management system for?

If an LMS is for the teacher, then I think they will find the previously listed features to be of great benefit to their practice. As an example, no longer do they have to collect papers, lug them home and grade them by hand. Now, students can submit their work electronically through the LMS. The teacher can assess learning online. The excuse “My dog ate my homework” ceases to exist. Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo fall into this category.

Also, teachers can use the LMS tools to create quizzes that could serve as a formative assessment of the lesson presented that day. Data is immediately available regarding who understands the content and who needs further support. This quick turnaround can help a teacher be more responsive to student’s academic needs. There are obvious benefits for a teacher who elects to use an LMS for these reasons.

If, on the other hand, an LMS is for the students, then we have a bit more work to do. With a teacher-centric LMS, not much really changes regarding how a classroom operates. The teacher assigns content and activities, the students complete it, and the teacher assesses. The adage “old wine in new bottles” might apply here.

With students in mind when integrating an LMS in school, the whole idea of instruction has to shift. We are now exploring concepts such as personalized learning, which “puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace” (Singer, 2016), and connected learning, which ties together students’ interests, peer networks and school accomplishments (Ito et al, 2013). In this scenario, it is not the students who need to make a shift but the teachers. Examples of more student-centered LMSs include Epiphany Learning and Project Foundry.

The role that teachers have traditionally filled looks very different than what a more student-centered, digitally-enhanced learning environment might resemble. I don’t believe either focus – the teacher or the student – is an ineffective approach for using a learning management system. The benefits in each scenario are promising. Yet we know that the more students can have ownership over the learning experience, there is an increased likelihood of greater achievement gains and higher engagement in school.

References

Amit K, S. (2016). Choosing the Right Learning Management System: Factors and Elements. eLearning Industry. Available: https://elearningindustry.com/choosing-right- learning-management- system-factors-elements

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Media and Learning Research Hub. Whitepaper, available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning- agenda-for- research-and-design/

Singer, N., Isaac, M. (2016). Facebook Helps Develop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans. The New York Times. Available: http://nyti.ms/2b3LNzv

Data-Driven or Data-Informed? Thoughts on trust and evaluation in education

Data-informed or data-driven? This is a question I have wrestled with as a school administrator for some time. What I have found is that the usefulness of student data to inform instruction and accountability rests on the level of trust that exists within the school walls.

First there is trust in the data itself. Are the results of these assessment tools reliable (consistency of results administered over time and students) and valid (accuracy in the results of the assessments to measure student learning)? These are good initial inquiries, but should only be a starting point.

Security of student information should also be a priority when electing to house student data with third parties. One question I have started asking vendors that develop modern assessment tools include “Where do you house our student data?”, “What do you do with this data beyond allowing us to organize and analyze it?”, and “Who owns the student data?”. In a commentary for The New York Times, Julia Angwin highlights situations in which the algorithms used to make “data-driven decisions” regarding probability of recidivism in the criminal justice system were too often biased in their results (2016). Could a similar situation happen in education? Relying merely on the output that a computer program produces leads one to question the validity and reliability of this type of data-driven decision making.

A second issue regarding trust in schools related to data is how student learning results are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers and principals. All educators are rightfully skeptical when accountability systems ask for student learning results to be counted toward their performance ratings and, in some cases, level of pay and future employment with an organization.

This is not to suggest that student assessment data should be off the table when conversations occur regarding the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her impact on their students’ learning. The challenge, though, is ensuring that there is a clear correlation between the teacher’s actions and student learning. One model for data-driven decision making “provides a social and technical system to helps schools link summative achievement test data with the kinds of formative data that helps teachers improve student learning across schools” (Halverson et al, 162). Using a systematic approach like this, in which educators are expected to work together using multiple assessments to make instructional decisions, can simultaneously hold educators collectively accountable while ensuring that students are receiving better teaching.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many schools. Administrators too often adhere to the “data-driven” mentality with a literal and absolute mindset. Specifically, if something cannot be quantified, such as teacher observations and noncognitive information, school leaders may dismiss these results as less valuable than what a more quantitative tool might offer. Professional trust can tank in these situations.

That is why it is critical that professional development plans provide educators with training to build assessment literacy with every teacher. A faculty should be well versed in the differences between formative and summative assessments, informal and formal measurements, deciding which data points are more reliable than others, and how to triangulate data in order to analyze results and make a more informed decision regarding student learning.

Since analytics requires data analysis, institutions will need to invest in effective training to produce skilled analytics staff. Obtaining or developing skilled staff may present the largest barrier and the greatest cost to any academic analytics initiative (Baer & Campbell, 2012).

Building this assessment literacy can result in a level of trust in oneself as a professional to make informed instructional decisions on behalf of kids. If a faculty can ensure that the data they are using is a) valid and reliable, b) used to improve student learning and instructional practice, and c) considers multiple forms of data used wisely, then I am all for data-driven decision making as a model for school improvement. Trust will rise and student achievement may follow. If not, an unfortunate outcome might be the data cart coming before the pedagogical horse.

References

Angwin, J. (2016). Make Algorithms Accountable. The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/make-algorithms-accountable.html?_r=0

Baer, L.L. & Campbell, J. (2012). From Metrics to Analytics, Reporting to Action: Analytics’ Role in Changing the Learning Environment. Educause. Available: https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub72034.pdf

Halverson, R., Gregg, J., Prichett, R., & Thomas, C. (2007). The New Instructional Leadership: Creating Data-Driven Instructional Systems in Schools. Journal of School Leadership. Volume 17, pgs 159-194.

This is a reation paper I wrote for a graduate course I am currently taking (Technology and School Leadership). Feel free to respond in the comments to extend this thinking.