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Into the Wild: How I Found My Way Out of a Student Data Desert

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By Meredith Smith

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When I first started teaching, I was swimming in data about my students' academic progress. I taught language arts and algebra to students with special needs, and their IEPs were treasure troves of old score reports, test results and teacher observations. When I found it necessary to know even more about their reading abilities, the veteran language arts and special education teachers at my school shared which reliable assessments they used.

I'll admit that at first, the glut of data seemed overwhelming. But as I learned to use it, I found I didn't want to teach without it. My teaching improved exponentially as I used ongoing classroom measurements to better support each students' needs. In a short time, the data was my foundation for writing relevant, appropriate lessons. Learning from a teacher who understood their individual needs, my students thrived.

When I transitioned to teaching art, I started looking for the same information: What did my students know? How could I target my instruction to serve them better? But I didn't have the same resources, or a clear, easy way to determine what my students knew and were able to create. There were no vast state test resources, other art teachers at my school, or easily accessible diagnostic tests.

I began to cobble together my own rigorous assessments to ensure I knew what my students were learning. I looked outside my state of Tennessee to learn from South Carolina, one of the few states that gave standardized tests in the arts, and were also nice enough to post item samplers on the Internet. Thank goodness for my district's professional development coaches who steered me to AP rubrics. I even scoured old data banks for tests like the New York Regents Exam, to learn how well-crafted questions and art-making prompts were written. I spent untold hours creating assessments to collect the kind of information I used to have at my fingertips.

I soon realized that my experience wasn't isolated. Teachers all over the place were doing this. They knew what worked, but there wasn't an easy way to connect the information. Talking to other teachers of non-tested subject areas illuminated the need for a central place to share information about which tests worked and which tests didn't. Veteran teachers have an untapped fountain of knowledge on the matter, but no forum to share outside their individual network.

Over the summer, I worked with fellow teachers convened by Teach Plus to create a website called Assessment Advisor: Reviews Powered by Teachers to provide a space for teachers to share their knowledge.

Talking to other teachers of non-tested subject areas -- and not just art teachers, but teachers of Latin and statistics and history -- illuminated the need for a central place to share information about which tests worked and which tests didn't. Like a Yelp for tests, Assessment Advisor allows teachers everywhere to quickly determine which assessments provide the best data to help them tailor their instruction to meet student needs.

More than just a resource bank of tests, Assessment Advisor clearly illuminates which tests measure higher-order thinking skills, which tests pinpoint specific groups of knowledge, which tests are easy and reliable to administer and which tests just aren't worth giving.

I envision a day when all teachers have access to great data, and all students can learn in classrooms where they are understood. Assessment Advisor is an important step towards that goal.

Meredith Smith teaches visual arts and photography at Southwest Prep Academy in Memphis, Tennessee. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

Are you a Memphis district or charter school teacher? Do you want to impact the policies that affect your classroom? Apply now to be a 2012-13 Teaching Policy Fellow. Applications are due April 9.