In 1999, Aspire opened its first school in Modesto, CA. Fifteen years later, Aspire Public Schools is one the nation’s highest-performing school systems serving primarily low-income students, and currently serves more than 13,000 students from Kindergarten to 12th grade in California and Tennessee. For the last four years, 100% of Aspire graduates have earned admission to a 4-year college. We spoke with Amy Fowler, Aspire’s Director of Secondary Education and Student Programs, to learn how the Aspire team used Schoolzilla to increase student retention and graduation rates.
The Problem: Student Attrition
“Aspire is focused on giving its students the best educational opportunities that they can,” Amy Fowler shared. “We really do believe that all kids can achieve this goal: we want 100% of our graduates to go to college. And, we simultaneously want 100% of our 9th graders to make it to 12th grade with us, not with someone else.” Because of this focus, Aspire was especially concerned about students who were choosing to leave.
Coming to Conclusions with Data
Aspire staff had hypotheses about the characteristics of the students who were most likely to leave Aspire before graduating. To test those hypotheses, they dug into their data by building reports on Schoolzilla’s platform, analyzing the correlation of the following characteristics among students who ended up leaving:
- Student demographics, including ethnicity and primary language
- Students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch
- Students eligible for special education services
- Students who scored Below or Far Below Basic on either the Math or Reading California State Test
- Students with a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or lower
- Students with a D or F in at least one course
“What we found,” says Fowler, “was that the demographics of kids were not the indicator that seemed to matter. What we did find, was that a cumulative GPA below 2.0, or receiving a D or an F in a class, was really predictive of kids leaving.” More specifically, “one of the highest predictors of a kid leaving our organization was if they got a D or an F in the first semester of their first year with us.”
Even though the majority of Aspire’s students are successful, Aspire determined that this problem was unacceptable and that they needed to do something to ensure that all of their students could find success within their rigorous program.
Fowler’s next step was to share the data with other Aspire staffers to see if they would come to the same conclusion. Rather than delivering her findings to the rest of the organization “from on high,” Fowler invited principals and other Aspire staffers to go through the same data review process as she and her team. Quickly, Fowler’s colleagues reached the same basic conclusion: for students, receiving a D or an F increased the likelihood that they would leave before graduation. To attack attrition, the schools needed to find ways to support students before the D or F was earned.
A Key Metric: “On-Trackness”
Collaborating around the data generated widespread consensus about the root of the problem, and motivation to focus on solutions. Lowering Aspire’s expectations for all students was not an option. Instead, Fowler teamed up with Aspire’s instructional leaders to refocus on helping students who struggle to achieve academic success.
One of the simplest ways that Aspire thinks about student success is whether a student is on track to graduate in four years, or off track. Being on track means maintaining a certain minimum GPA and completing college preparatory coursework on schedule. Being off track means receiving either a D or an F in any course.
Historically, Aspire would review end-of-semester grades to determine students’ “on-trackness.” However, those grade reviews typically took place up to three weeks after a semester had ended. By that time, students had already selected their courses for the following semester. As a result, students who were deemed off track at the beginning of the spring semester might not be able to enroll in courses they needed to take again until the summer or the following fall. Aspire teachers needed a system to catch kids before they ever got off track.
Toward a Solution
Aspire decided to focus on in-progress grades in order to reduce the number of students who received a D or F. “It was amazing to discover that the largest factor [contributing to students leaving] was something that we have a great deal of control over,” says Fowler. Using Schoolzilla, Aspire built a “Grade Tracker” seen in Picture 2 below, which allows principals to view their students’ in-progress grades by teacher. The report allows them to drill all the way down to the individual student level. As a result, principals and teachers can intervene with students who are headed toward a failing grade before the semester ends.
The results were almost immediate. Starting at box 1 , principals can see the total in-progress grade distribution for their particular school. Drilling down to box 2 allows them to see their school’s grade distribution by teacher. Notice, for example, that Teacher 3 seems to be giving a disproportionate number of D and F grades. Using this report, Teacher 3 and his/her principal can drill down further to box 3 and see the individual students and grades that are off track. Box 4 shows the narrative notes that Amy and her team would attach to the report to provide context, encouragement, and suggestions.
Picture 2 – Academic Tracker
By the end of the fall semester, almost every school in the network was surpassing its goal. In fact, the results were so good that Fowler stopped sending her bi-weekly data reminders. Unfortunately, when she checked on the numbers a few weeks into the spring semester, she found that almost every school had lost the gains they made in the previous semester. Fowler and her colleagues learned that developing data-driven solutions is just as important as sustaining them. By the end of the school year, most schools had gained back their losses and more – on average exceeding Aspire’s on-track targets.
- The most effective Data Champions are those people who combine technical chops with school-based content expertise to connect the dots from data to action. Schoolzilla’s data model is designed to be flexible and consistent enough to allow school districts to share report templates with other educators facing similar issues across the country. Thus, Schoolzilla’s customers can learn from others’ experiences and benefit from their efforts.
- To achieve real impact, teachers and school leaders must embrace a culture of data-driven action. Central office data wizardry can only take a school system so far. Aspire nurtures its data culture by teaching school staff to use Schoolzilla on their own, for example, and making sure the data is relevant to them. For example, Aspire provided principals with site-specific cost savings from reducing the number of students who have to repeat courses or attend summer school.
- Data-driven action doesn’t have to rely on rigid, top-down policies. For example, Aspire allows principals and teachers within each school to develop grading practices that make sense for their particular school. Aspire’s central office uses data to help point out inconsistencies and offer support, but they know that their recommendations rely on real people for implementation. Schools just need a willingness to use data as the starting place for real conversations about what will help students succeed.