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Hechinger Report: How to stem kids' reading and math losses - in the summer

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By Bryan Hall
Published July 16, 2015

Our lives are informed more and more by data, We track how many steps we take, apps on our phones now can detect when we go to bed and wake up and how soundly we sleep.

In schools, we collect a trove of data during the academic year. There are worthy debates to be had about the quality of this data and how it's put to use, but it's hard to argue we don't collect enough data from our children to inform classroom instruction.

We need data in our summer programs, too, even though in most school systems the measurement of student performance during the summer remains a work in progress.

Some summer program providers are discovering that a combination of technology and the Common Core offers fruitful common ground.

We know that "summer learning loss" has a strong research basis: Studies have shown that, each year, students lose two or more months of grade-equivalent skills in reading and math if they do not participate in rigorous, structured educational activities during the summer. But program models and measurement practices vary widely.

This challenge has been complicated as school budgets shrink and more districts rely on community partners to provide summer programs. In many communities, nonprofit organizations are taking on the operational and instructional activities that once were the responsibility of the school district.

New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Charlotte and Winston-Salem are a few examples where school and community partnerships share responsibility for student success in the summer.

Together with school and district leaders, we strive to combine the best of academic support with a camp-like environment and experience, customized to meet the needs of students and schools.

Nonprofits, like schools, want to be judged by our results. If a school district is expected to measure outcomes from September to June, why shouldn't a summer learning organization do the same in July and August?

Ideally, we'd like to use the assessment tools already in place in the district, linked to existing data, to analyze our impact.

But, like many summer learning providers, we often face challenges gaining access to school year test data.

Timing limitations also play a part: Pencil-and-paper tests administered at the end of the school year hamper timely collection and sharing of data in the short window between spring testing and the start of a summer program.

In the face of these challenges, many providers choose to administer an independent assessment tool.

We now are administering short, 34-question computer-adaptive assessments built for Common Core reading and math standards at the beginning and end of a program, a method commonly referred to as a "pre-post" design.

Students can complete both assessments in as little as 40 minutes. Across a typical 5-week summer program, less than 2 percent of a scholar's time is spent testing.

Use of an independent, computer-adaptive assessment has significant advantages. It ensures that, regardless of location, all students are measured against a consistent set of national, curriculum-neutral standards and compared against one peer group.

Computer-adaptive tests ensure data is available immediately during and after a program concludes. These assessments also give providers more control of the assessment process, eliminate data sharing burdens, simplify analysis and reporting, and shorten the time it takes to report on impact.

This is not a perfect solution for all schools and school districts. Many still are getting used to Common Core assessments and also struggling to build the technological infrastructure required for web-based assessments. Others are contending with vocal Common Core opponents, raising uncertainty about the stickiness of such new tools and standards. And others want summer program data to be tailored to local needs, such as by using language and metrics that align with state tests or district initiatives.

So is there even such a thing as common ground when it comes to measuring summer success? Last summer, we caught a glimpse of what is possible when student progress is viewed consistently with common tools. At two program sites near Dayton, Ohio, each used STAR Enterprise assessments to measure student progress - just as BELL uses STAR assessments to measure gains in our summer learning program.

For the first time, schools could compare apples to apples when it came to measuring student performance in the summer and in the school year, seamlessly tracking student achievement from the spring through the summer and into the fall.

So when school started up again in August, teachers had instant access to accurate student performance data that took into account summer learning gains. That helped those teachers focus classroom instruction more effectively, spending less time figuring out their students' strengths and weaknesses and more time delivering data-driven instruction.

We are building on last summer's experience in Ohio. We hope that as Common Core assessments take root across the country, more opportunities arise to apply consistent measurement standards across the school year and summer.

Bryan Hall is the director of evaluation for Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), a leading nonprofit provider of quality expanded learning programs for children in grades K-8.

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