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Accounted For is a series that looks at the impact of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason — on learning.

Mining Data For Student Success

Remko van Dokkum | Flickr

More and more school districts in St. Louis and across the nation are looking through data for ways to improve student success. In addition, the latest state education standards, MSIP5, place a greater emphasis on tracking the progress of individual students.

Assistant Superintendent for Ferguson-Florissant Farhad Jadali monitors student data for his school district -- and more than 30 other school systems across the state.

“Knowing the class, that group of students’ strengths and weaknesses as a group, we say individualized instruction, but I cannot give a lesson plan 23 different ways in one period,” Jadali said.  “The highlight of it is, if I’m a teacher, I need to look and at the beginning of the school year on every subject I need to teach, what is my class all about and how do I need to teach for them to understand the concept better.”

Jadali has built an in-house data team at the district's headquarters, contracting out with administrators across the state looking for an edge in the classroom and generating revenue for his district.  Because MSIP5 homes in on the progress individual students are making on annual assessments, Jadali said business has been picking up as of late.   

"We can no longer afford to have students in the first level, below basic," Jadali said.  "We need to identify them and we need to move them up to the next level.  We cannot afford to have teachers not inducing as much knowledge as they should."

The speed with which data from state exams are collected and analyzed will only get faster.  As Missouri moves toward implementing Common Core State Standards, state officials are planning to have students take tests online next school year.  And as students take their annual state exams for the current year, St. Louis Public Radio’s Tim Lloyd recently stopped by Jadali’s office to learn more about the increasing role of student data is playing in the classroom.

Below is an extended audio version of their conversation as well as highlights from the interview.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

St. Louis Public Radio: Explain to me how the idea of student data collection and analysis has grown over the years.

Jadali: In 2000, when I started here, paper reports were being generated.  The times have changed.  We started creating systems that in an instant you can look at data.  Three clicks, you get any information you want -- from how many pushups, how many sit-ups a student can do, to their achievement level to their attendance, their past progress.  We can look at our teachers success.  We can look at one of our schools to see their strengths and weaknesses.  Speed has become the factor.  With all the budget cuts, we cannot afford to have 10 people sitting around generating old fashioned paper reports.

Credit Courtesy Nine Network
Farhad Jadali, assistant superintendent for the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

That data is so granular, how do you look through that to find students at risk and then help them get back on track?

Jadali: We’ve made customized screens so that each individual when they log in can see the things that are going to impact them. We have things like Missouri School Improvement Program, MAP test.  Students that are below basic,  we identify every student that falls within that category.  Every child who is in the basic level, which has the potential to fall to the lower category, we identify those students and have a plan of improvement for them to make sure they can move out of that level and go to the next level.  We also look at health data, making sure they can attend class. Find out, what are the reasons a student is not attending class.  We make sure they attend, take the test and perform.

There are people who worry about collecting this much data, specifically about student privacy.  How would you respond to those concerns?

Jadali: Every year when a child is enrolled we ask parents: "How much information on this child do you want to be used?  Do you even want this child’s picture to be used in our brochures?" If parents choose not to have their students in our studies, we definitely honor that.   For us, ultimately, all parents want the district to be successful and their children to be successful.  We have to use that data.   And whenever we use that data, especially on the student level, the sanctity of data is very important.  That’s the most important part of our job, to ensure the security and safety of our students and their information, as well.

The Missouri School Improvement Plan Five (MSIP5) came into effect fully last year, the way it looks at standards. How has that changed the way districts are now using student data, or has it?

Jadali: Yes, it has. That’s one of the reasons I provide more services than I did before.  The need is there, we want to look at success.  We can no longer afford to have students in the first level, below basic. We need to identify them and we need to move them up to the next level.  We cannot afford to have teachers not inducing as much knowledge as they should.

What’s next in the field of looking at student data? How can researchers correlate these different data points into a web of things that they can use to help students be successful in the classroom?

Jadali: We have to be able to induce knowledge at a much faster pace. It’s no longer, ‘Johnny can you tell me what the answer is?’  No, you ask a question to the entire class and they respond and the teacher can quickly see, ‘hmmm, did children learn this concept as a group or not?  Do I need to spend more time on this or can I move on to the next subject?’ Collecting data on the spot from children so we know, as a teacher, if I’m successful conveying the lesson plan.

Personally, I look at a list of my successful teachers.  Which of my teachers has produced the best results?  I take a camcorder, I put it in a classroom, I capture a lesson plan and put it on my district website. I make sure that everyone can watch and learn from them.  We have to share our successes.  I also identify those teachers who are not performing and we provide professional development for them.  We have to look at data, every facet of it: attendance, student performance, discipline referrals.  Everything that’s going to impact student performance. We can no longer make decisions based on a gut feeling.       

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.