By Brenna R. Kelly
Jessica Zeitz gets a present every summer that only a data geek could love – an Excel spreadsheet.
It’s not just any data file. The spreadsheet is filled with the ACT scores of incoming seniors at Woodford County High School.
The file allows Zeitz to start the process that will consume her for the next 10 months, making sure every senior in the 1,200-student school is college and/or career ready.
“I know our seniors,” Zeitz said. “I know their test scores. I know if they are a point or two away from benchmark in math and if they are six points away in reading. I know their career pathways and how many credits they have in those pathways. I need to know everything about our senior class and this spreadsheet allows me to know that.”
Zeitz is the school’s data specialist and testing coordinator, a role that didn’t exist just three years ago.
But when college/career readiness became part of Kentucky’s accountability system starting in 2011-12, school officials knew they had to make some changes.
The push to make sure every Kentucky student graduates from high school ready to succeed in college or their chosen career was part of the mandate of Senate Bill 1 (2009), which sought to increase the rigor of the state’s academic standards to better prepare students for life beyond high school.
At the time, only 30 percent of Kentucky high school graduates were designated college/career ready. That meant that many students started college having to take noncredit bearing remedial classes.
In order to measure college/career readiness, the state adopted academic benchmarks set by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and career benchmarks set by the state, military and industry as part of the new Unbridled Learning accountability model. All of these new measures of student achievement meant more data for schools.
“Data was not one of my strengths,” said Principal Rob Akers.
So when an assistant principal retired, Akers created the data specialist position. The goal was to make data more valuable to teachers and to make sure students weren’t falling through the cracks, he said.
“There are so many moving parts in this accountability system that if you don’t have someone who can nail down the moving parts, it could be easy to have kids get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “There are a lot of kids who don’t have anybody really making sure that they stay on track and that was a big part of our mission in hiring a data specialist.”
Data tracking was just one of the strategies for increasing college/career readiness that Zeitz, Akers and Guidance Counselor Regina Taylor presented recently at the AdvancED Kentucky Continuous Improvement Summit in Lexington.
The changes, some big and some small, have helped Woodford County High School increase its college/career readiness rate from 58.6 percent of graduates to 77 percent over the past four years.
Seniors who need extra help meeting benchmarks are now grouped together in English and math classes, Taylor said. That gets teachers to take more ownership of helping students meet the goals.
“It’s also helped preserve student’s dignity a little bit,” she said. “If everyone in your English class is not college ready in English or reading, you all in there together working to make this benchmark.”
Taylor meets with each student to plan his or her schedule and career pathway. The school added capstone projects to its career pathways in order to get more students to complete the three credits needed to be eligible for Kentucky occupational assessments or industry certification.
“The climate at our school has really changed,” Taylor said. “It used to be, ‘Do I have to do a career pathway?’ And now, we’ve been asked multiple times, ‘Can I double major?’”
The school also added incentives. At graduation, students who are college ready get an honor cord and career-ready students are recognized at a formal senior breakfast.
Another change that likely will increase the college/career readiness rate, the Woodford County Board of Education made college/career readiness a graduation requirement starting with this year’s freshman class.
“I go into freshman classes now and they are talking about the ACT, they are talking about college and career readiness,” Zeitz said. “It’s such an important conversation and before, we were waiting until their senior year to have it. We’re now having it with freshman and their parents.”
The school switched to a block schedule to offer more career pathways and give students more time for test prep. Students use their school-issued iPads to access Method Test Prep to do 20 minutes of ACT prep each week. Taylor and Zeitz also created a master assessment calendar so teachers always know when a test is being offered.
As the students reach the benchmarks on any of the tests, Zeitz color codes her Excel spreadsheet. While there are more sophisticated data programs she could use, Zeitz likes Excel’s simplicity.
She starts with the ACT-generated spreadsheet, then adds additional columns for the other college and career ready benchmarks. Then she color codes the chart.
“If they’ve made benchmark, they get green,” she said. “If they don’t, I leave it blank and I know that’s where I need to focus with that student.”
Zeitz and Akers review the data every two weeks to look for trends and see which students need extra help.
Though looking at the senior class as numbers and colors on a spreadsheet might seem impersonal, the former social studies teacher doesn’t forget what the data represents.
“I truly have a passion for kids,” she said. “There’s nothing that I do that boils them down to a number. They are a living, breathing person who I am helping on their journey.”
Jessica Zeitz firstname.lastname@example.org
Regina Taylor email@example.com
Rob Akers Rob.firstname.lastname@example.org