Future of Learning

New ways to identify struggling students

A South Carolina district looks at more data to keep kids on track

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Adults in a school generally know the names of the most at-risk students. Those having the hardest time academically or emotionally stand out.

In Richland School District 2 in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, Erin Armstrong says if students are ranked according to risk, the top 10 to 15 names will be familiar. Those students are the ones who appear in the office all the time. They’re getting in trouble.

“The numbers 15 to 30,” Armstrong said, “those are the ones who are falling through the cracks.”

Armstrong, the lead teacher for virtual education in the district, has taken a leading role in developing a new system for making sure all students get the attention they need.

Five years ago, if teachers or administrators wanted to identify the struggling students they might be missing, they would have had to spend hours combing through spreadsheets, piecing together risk profiles. Now, a software program does that automatically, tracking dozens of factors related to student performance, attendance and behavior, and updating risk levels for every student monthly. Importantly, all the adults in the building have access to this information and they can add their own notes about students so that new insights are shared. Every time someone intervenes with a student and tries something to get or keep that child on track, it’s logged.

That’s a big change from how things happened before. Armstrong said the district is full of people who care deeply about serving students at risk of failing or dropping out. But five years ago, everyone was working alone.

“Things were happening in silos,” Armstrong said. “Nobody was talking to anybody.”

The new system breaks down the silos and creates opportunities for conversation that never existed before. It also makes sure any patterns in the data are brought to light. If something like bus discipline seems to correlate strongly with academic performance, bus discipline will be a factor that gets closer attention. That wasn’t the case five years ago, when educators were in the dark about all but the most obvious correlations between behavior and outcomes.

So far, the district uses it in all 20 of its elementary schools, where getting and keeping students on grade level is imperative so that students don’t get held back in third grade. In South Carolina, the state mandates third-grade retention for kids who are behind. This spring, the district’s seven middle schools will have to use the system, too, and next year, the five high schools will follow suit, if they haven’t already.

Armstrong looks forward to the districtwide implementation and its potential to keep even more kids on track. In elementary school, in many ways, it’s easier because class sizes are smaller and kids spend almost their entire day with the same teacher. In middle school, when students start switching classes each period, and in high school, where truancy increases (at least in Richland 2), Armstrong has seen the risks grow. Giving teachers and administrators a tool to keep track of students better will pressure them to use it, she said.

Related: Making ‘Big Data’ useful rather than scary for teachers

Marjie Rehlander, a school psychologist at Westwood High School in the district, is a member of the original team advocating this comprehensive intervention and risk management system. She finds its ability to find patterns in the district’s own student data to be powerful.

“It broadens our ideas about how to identify students with risk and how to be more prescriptive in our interventions,” Rehlander said.

It also alerts teachers and administrators to problem behaviors sooner than they might have noticed them on their own, which makes a difference when trying to offer a course correction. Rehlander said one student was on track for graduation, but her attendance started to suffer. The software identified her early, but she wasn’t on any staff member’s radar because she was otherwise on track. A simple phone call home, however, unearthed information that made the need for an intervention clear, and school staff could step in and keep her on her path toward graduation.

Rehlander expects the new system to be responsible for many more stories like that in the years to come.

This story about struggling students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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