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‘Data culture’: software solutions boost school grades

Computer-enhanced learning continues to bring academic improvement to Florida schools.

Florida school districts utilizing computer-enhanced learning continue to see academic improvement and rising school grades. Consultants at educational software companies hope district leaders will be encouraged by this trend, and that more districts will embrace technology as a means to establish a “data culture” in schools. And at some of Florida’s most improved schools, administrators are happy to credit modern tools.

In Sarasota County, McIntosh Middle School had its grade increase from a C in 2017 to a B in 2018 and an A this year. During the same period of time, the school adopted i-Ready programs focused on math and language arts. McIntosh Middle is one of more than 2,000 schools using i-Ready out of the 3,300 schools in the state of Florida. According to a report at ABC-7 WWSB. Assistant Principal Lindsay Csogi credited the program with helping improve student test performance.

“Not only does it help to fill in the gaps of learning, but it helps the teachers so that they can inform instruction and work with them in small groups on specific standards that they might be lacking in,” she said.

The school for much of the past two years has held weekly “Focus Fridays” where faculty discuss student performance on i-Ready assessments. That’s one example of a strong “data culture.”

Creating a Data Culture

Curriculum Associates, the educational resource company who makes i-Ready and other instructional materials, released a case study last year based on the use of education technology tools for instruction and assessment in the Miami-Dade County schools. That paper recommends a number of implementation methods to make sure software empowers educators.

Miami-Dade, the fourth largest school district in the country, has made strides in school grades since the school started assessments in the Gov. Jeb Bush administration.

In 1999, the county had 26 failing schools. By 2017, it had none. In 2019, there were also no failing schools, and just six of 443 schools in the district scored a D. The Curriculum Associates case study suggests that a nuanced introduction of technology helped district schools climb in standing to make Miami-Dade an A-grade district. That’s what Maria Izquierdo, Chief Academic Officer for Miami-Dade’s Office of Academics and Transformation, told researchers.

“We need teachers to be the artists of their craft,” she said. “We don’t want them to be spending their days disaggregating data, we want them to use their time to meet their kids where they are. We want to create systems that provide more freedom for them to practice their art.”

The greatest success of bringing programs into the district is actually moving away from “teaching to the test,” the study suggests.

“In Miami-Dade, having a strong data culture means that data informs strategy/actions at every level: classroom, school, and district. Redundant testing is minimized to allow teachers to focus on fewer data elements and to maximize student instructional time,” the study found. “Teachers have more detailed information about all their students’ strengths and needs, enabling them to be more efficient and purposeful in planning just what students need, thereby increasing efficiency of teaching time.”

Expanding Tech Reach

Similar strategies appear to have worked in districts big and small.

Sarah Sanchez, principal of Eastside Elementary School in Hendry County, recently wrote a guest post at Education Week about strategies that turned her school from a D school in 2017 to a B school this year. Among them? Using i-Ready Diagnostic software to better inform instruction with data.

“By leveraging this data and pairing it with i-Ready Instruction, we were able to both differentiate instruction and maximize student learning,” Sanchez wrote. “In addition, we amplified our teacher-led lessons using resources available through the accompanying Teacher Toolbox. We also provided students with individual, private folders where they could view their own data, evaluate progress, and set specific growth targets for themselves.”

Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas saw similar improvement on a districtwide scale in the Panhandle. This year, 12 schools in that district earned As, and 18 schools saw grades improve from last year. Again, i-Ready was part of the path to success, he told ABC 3 WEARTV.

“We started 10-day data reviews where district teams come in with a school team and looked at where are your students performing,” he said. “I believe that had a significant play in the progress that we saw this year.”

In Palm Beach County, Lake Park Elementary School Principal Michelle Fleming said software helped turn her school around from a D school in 2015 to an A school today. In a recent column for eSchool News, she acknowledged it seemed daunting at first to bring technology approaches she had used at a middle school level to a Title I elementary school where many students didn’t come in with any exposure to education software, or even prekindergarten education. Delving into data turned out to be a big part of turning the school performance around.

“We worked with teachers to use this data to identify problem areas, group students according to need, and differentiate instruction,” she wrote. “Teachers conducted individual student data chats with students to set personal goals and help them see how many points they needed to attain their next level.”

Dissenting voices

The use of i-Ready and similar assessment programs has drawn critics, of course.

San Diego Free Press blogger Thomas Ultican last year critiqued the assessment tool as “terrible at teaching.”

“The last thing a 21st Century student needs is to be shoved in front of another lifeless digital device,” Ultican wrote. “Students need to interact with ‘highly qualified’ certificated teachers.”

Of course, Curriculum Associates has always stressed that the company’s products aim to assist those qualified teachers, not replace them, and the current push to create a data culture aims in part to quell fears. Also, Florida education leaders say the greatest successes using programs like i-Ready comes in providing educators with more information.

Amy Crowell, director of research and accountability for the Citrus County School District, suggested as much to the Citrus County Chronicle in July. The programs, she said, let teachers learn exactly what students must focus on to meet Florida’s education standards.

And back in Sarasota County, officials continue to document how creating a data culture has continued to close achievement gaps. Heather Wasserman, assistant principal at the A-graded Laurel Nokomis School, told Getting Smart that i-Ready tools have helped students embrace performance assessments as well. Whether it’s competitiveness or a way for students to see their own improvement, the tools have proven to be motivational.

“The motivation to succeed is contagious,” Wasserman said.

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at

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