Scottsdale Schools implements assessment-tracking program for all grade levels

(file photo)

The Scottsdale Unified School District has launched a benchmark testing program to help better educate teachers on student progress. (file photo)

“When you don’t use data, you don’t have to tell the truth,” is how a top administrator at the Scottsdale Unified School District described the educational entity’s long followed approach to benchmark testing.

Scottsdale Schools top officials and Governing Board members Thursday, Sept. 8 peeled back another layer to the organizational onion they started to digest at the beginning of the new school year.

During a September study session, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board continued that conversation about student data and trends — information the district has not been utilizing in past years.

At the first regular meeting of the 2016-17 school year, Assistant Superintendent of Accountability and Instruction, Dr. Anna McCauley, presented a wide overview of historical data for the past 11 years.

Although this is only the second year of AzMERIT testing, the district can look at scores compared to previous years by using  a score transformation technique in order to see trends over time.

Following up, the district has begun implementing a district-wide program, SchoolCity, to help teachers give their students benchmark testing.

“SchoolCity helps districts across the country create their own success stories with revolutionary assessment, accountability and data management solutions,” the SchoolCity website states.

The program is receiving some pushback from a select-few staff members though, said Interim Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell — something she says can be attributed to a culture shift.

“This is a huge culture shift in high schools,” she said during the Sept. 8 meeting. “They haven’t been giving benchmark assessments, so they haven’t looked at data to drive instruction at all. So they have the biggest shift in our schools.”

In elementary schools, the data-based thinking has been more commonly accepted for years, she said.

“We already have some schools and teachers pushing back to having assessment in an accountable system,” said Dr. Birdwell.

Denise Birdwell

Denise Birdwell

“I’m going to be honest with you, we have to have them use the instrument the district has paid for so we can help them with assessment. From a middle and secondary level, it’s critical. SchoolCity is a critical instrument in helping us drive these conversations.”

The district began training teachers and staff on the program last spring, and have since continued the training throughout each grade level.

The excitement level for using a new method to track student achievement is different at every school, said Dr. Birdwell. Some high school teachers were creating assessments using the new program before the school year even started.

“At one middle school only two teachers showed up,” she said. “This is what we learned this week. We have to go back out and say ‘oh I’m sorry, this was not an opt-out opportunity, and now we have to go back and you all have to show up.’”

The program is a “beautiful tool to help teachers,” according to Dr. Birdwell, and acknowledges it might take some tough conversations to get all staff members on the same page.

“Our teachers are having to address the outcomes of years of instruction and although they may have known or sensed that maybe our kids aren’t doing as well as other kids, they haven’t had to face that reality,” Dr. Birdwell said.

“They are now — when you call yourself a college preparatory school and only 20 percent of your kids go to college, why are you calling yourself a college preparatory school?”

The utilization of data is forcing those conversations, she says.

“The more that we have data to drive that conversation, the better. The more that teachers understand the data, the better. The more that teachers actually cooperate and use the data, the better,” explained Dr. Birdwell. “If I can push back and say I don’t want to take the assessments and I’m not going to, then you can’t hold me accountable because they know you don’t have the data, and you can’t have the conversation with them.”

The main focus for district leaders is the students.

“When you don’t use data, you don’t have to tell the truth,” said Assistant Superintendent of Education Services, Dr. Steve Nance, during the meeting. “But the data doesn’t lie. You have to be transparent and truthful with people.”

The district has been gathering data from assessments, teacher assessments and school walk-throughs.

“The conversation needs to be about kids,” said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Leadership Dr. David McNeil. “And we all need to be accountable for doing right around our kids.”

The district has previously had programs that could do similar tasks, according to Scottsdale Schools Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed and Vice President, Barbara Perleberg, but wasn’t utilized.

“We’ve had a tool that could have been used this way,” said President Sneed.

“I want to thank you both for explaining in a very clear way, why it’s been so important. I guess because I was elementary I could never understand why a teacher wouldn’t embrace this information. When we used to have AIMS, they wouldn’t know until the next year how our kids did and that’s not instructive, there’s no way to change instruction that way.”

The next academic data trends update is on the Sept. 13 Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board agenda.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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