How to Unlock Classroom Starting Points with Data

To figure out students’ needs, establish classroom starting points. First, gather multiple data points for each student you teach. Second, determine cutoffs for high, average, and low scores. Third, label each child. These three points help you see who needs help – and who needs enrichment.

What are classroom starting points? Teachers analyze data to determine instructional groups. Additionally, they use pretests to pinpoint specific needs.

Ms. Sneed Learns How to Establish Classroom Starting Points

As a first-year teacher, Ms. Sneed was still learning the ropes. With this in mind, her mentor was helping her plan instruction.

“Okay,” said Mrs. Brown. “Today we’ll get started on classroom starting points.”

“What do you mean?” replied Ms. Sneed.

“Well, to establish classroom starting points, you use data. If you lay it out on a table, you’ll see patterns. That helps you see whether a learner is high, average, or low at the beginning of the school year.”

“Oh, I get it. That way, you can sort of predict what they may need,” said Ms. Sneed.

“Yes, you can set up groups and target kids who need help.” Mrs. Brown looked at some files on the computer. “Let’s start with ELA. At the beginning of the year, you used running records to find each child’s DRA score. From the library, we have STAR Reading scores. And here are the standardized test scores for your class for last year.” The mentor clicked to bring up a file.

Analyze Multiple Data Points

“Setting student starting points requires multiple pieces of evidence. Three or more pieces of data will help you see which students need differentiation and/or tutoring,” Mrs. Brown continued.

“Now let’s organize your evidence.” She quickly created a table with five columns – name, DRA, STAR, ISTEP, and Student Starting Point.

Mrs. Brown looked at the screen. “For the starting points, we want to compare your students to one another – not to an outside group. Otherwise, you might end up with all high or all low. However, we want to find kids who need enrichment or remediation. Why don’t you plug the data into the table”

“Sure,” Mr. Sneed agreed. She sat down and waited for instructions.

“It looks like the midpoint for the DRA scores is a 44. That correlates roughly to fourth grade, fourth month. Makes sense. Why don’t we highlight all the 44s in yellow. Then shade the scores higher than 44 in green and less than 44 red.” Ms. Sneed quickly typed the DRA information into the table.

“The STAR Reading scores are higher. The lowest kids scored in the 4s. Average hover around 6 – with a few 5s. And then you’ve got some 7s and 8s. Okay – 4s are red, 5s and 6s yellow, 7s and 8s green.”

Once again, Ms. Sneed started typing.

“The grade level equivalents for DRA and STAR do not match up at all,” sighed Mrs. Brown. “That’s why we use more than one data point. And that’s why we compare kids in one class to one another.”

“For some kids the highlighted color matches,” noted Ms. Sneed, “but not many.”

The two continued until all the scores were recorded and highlighted.

Make a table with data points relating to ELA or math. Determine high, medium, and low ranges. Color code and establish each student's classroom starting point.

Use Data to Establish Classroom Starting Points

After Ms. Sneed typed the remaining data in the table, she sat back and studied the table. She squinted at the colors and furrowed her brow. “What the —?

“I know,” said Mrs. Brown. “Don’t overthink it, though. We’ll go for two out of three. For example, if a child has two yellows and one green, we’ll mark them as average.”

Ms. Sneed started labeling the starting points. As she moved along, her face relaxed. “Hey, I agree with these kids’ starting points. What I see in the classroom generally matches the labels on this paper.”

“That’s great news,” said Mrs. Brown. “It usually turns out that way.”

Use the Classroom Starting Points Right Away

Mrs. Brown gathered up her things. “So, before I leave, what do you plan to do with this sheet?” she asked her mentee.

Ms. Sneed smiled slyly. “Give it to the principal, of course. We have to turn them in next week.”

“You know what I mean,” snapped Mrs. Brown playfully. “What do you plan to do with it?”

“Yes, Mrs. Brown, I do know what you mean. The kids labeled low will be invited to our weekly tutoring sessions. I can also pull them to the table as needed. Those who are marked as high may need enrichment – or even acceleration. But those in yellow should be just fine with what I’m already doing.”

“Great!” said Mrs. Brown. “Now you understand how to find the classroom starting points our principal wants – and what to do with them.”

Finding Specific Classroom Starting Points

The mentor tapped her finger on the table. “We have a little more time. Let’s talk about more specific classroom starting points. By this, I mean pretesting. It will help us know where to begin the year, as well as how to continue.”

ELA Starting Points

Mrs. Brown pulled out her laptop, opened it, and looked for a file. “Here it is. Our beginning of year literature assessment. As you can see, kids read a one-page passage. Then they respond to prompts that are directly related to our reading standards. Specifically, they answer inferential questions; summarize, find a theme; describe a character; define multiple-meaning words; discriminate between poetry, prose, and drama; and identify point of view. Most questions ask for constructed responses, so I get a handle on that too.”

Ms. Sneed’s eyes opened wide. “That sounds like a lot.”

Smiling, Mrs. Brown acknowledged her point. “Sure. It’s a whole year of literature instruction. To be honest, most kids leave the majority of the test blank. You see, they don’t really know how to find a theme yet – or even what prose is. Additionally, they’re not ready to construct the responses we expect in fourth grade.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“To establish classroom starting points and direct instruction. Data from standardized tests don’t show me how students handle specific skills like this. Furthermore, I give a similar end of year reading test. Then I let kids compare the two assessment. Naturally, they (and their parents) love the growth they see.”

This beginning of year literature assessment lets fourth grade teachers get classroom starting points.

Math Starting Points

Now Mrs. Brown clicked over to a different file. “For math, I like something a little different. At the beginning of fourth grade, I want to know about two things: place value and computation skills.”

As she spoke, she turned the screen toward Ms. Sneed. “This whole number assessment has just 20 questions. Each targets a specific skill. For example, through the first five questions, I can see how they’re doing with place value. The remainder of the test focuses on computation: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.”

“So what do you do with this pretest?” Ms. Sneed asked.

“Good question. On this table, I check off correct answers. Horizontal holes show deficiencies for individual students. On the other hand, vertical holes show me what the class doesn’t know.”

Ms. Sneed’s eyes lit up. “Now I get it. For any columns that have lots of blanks, we need to give whole-class instruction.”

“Correct. But for other blank spaces, kids need individual or small group remediation. I keep this chart on my desk until every square is checked off. It’s a long-term process.”

“Wow. This approach is so different than simply teaching chapter by chapter and giving a test.”

Now Mrs. Brown smiled. “Yep. And it’s so much better. With it, you are ensuring that every child in your class masters whole number skills.”

You can use this twenty-question math assessment to determine kids' whole number skills. It will give you the classroom starting points you need.

Enjoy Teaching with Data

As Mrs. Brown packed up her papers and laptop, Ms. Sneed looked at her intently. “You know, I never really understood why teachers collect so much data. Actually, I dreaded it. But now, I understand its purpose. If you use the data to drive instruction, it’s all worth it.”

Continuing with Year-Long Planning

Throughout Ms. Sneed’s first year, her mentor helped her plan units of study. First, they deconstructed a standard. Second, they considered classroom starting points to scaffold instruction. Of course, they differentiated to meet each student’s needs. And the almighty textbook? Well, they only used the book as a resource. Instead, they pulled from a variety of resources and used interdisciplinary units whenever possible.

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