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Experts tell Symposium How Quality Data Can Drive School and Student Improvement

Education systems and schools need to adopt new approaches to assessment that are broader than testing past academic achievement and place a greater emphasis on the skills at school entry and during the critical early years of primary school, according to an international education researcher and assessment expert.

Professor Douglas Willms, President of the International Academy of Education, says schools need to better understand the skills and needs of children before they start school, regularly assess their progress and prosperity and empower teachers to change their practices to have the biggest impact.

Professor Willms, whose extensive research into student learning and evaluation, which included work on student engagement for the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), was among a panel of speakers addressing 120 independent school teachers and leaders at a data symposium hosted by Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) in Brisbane today.

ISQ Executive Director David Robertson said there was a growing policy emphasis at the state, national and international levels on the collection and analysis of quality student and school data.

“Today’s symposium brought together leading experts to share evidence and practical strategies about how schools can use data to make the greatest difference to student learning and progress,” Mr Robertson said.

Professor Willms, who founded a Canadian-based educational research and survey organisation called The Learning Bar, developed a model of educational prosperity that is currently being used in nine countries, including Australia.

He said the model was based on extensive research that identified five foundations for school success: safe and inclusive schools, quality instruction, learning time, material resources and family and community support.

Professor Willms said education systems and schools needed to shift the focus on data away from being an “accountability measure” to one that drives improvement through a “relentless” focus on the foundations for school success.

“When looking at data, everything else becomes clutter unless it brings a singular focus on improving those foundations for success.”

Professor Willms said it takes three to five years for schools to “really find that they’re making a difference”.

“However, the whole business isn’t worthwhile unless you change classroom practice; unless you improve the quality of instruction in the classroom.”

Australian Council for Educational Research CEO Professor Geoff Masters AO told the symposium that high quality information about the points individual students have reached in their learning was critical to improving overall levels of achievement in schools.

“Data of this kind enables teachers and other decision makers to identify starting points for action. For example, classroom teachers require quality information about the points students have reached in their learning to target their teaching appropriately and to intervene to address specific misunderstandings and student difficulties,” Professor Masters said.

“Quality data about the points individuals have reached in their learning also provides a basis for monitoring student progress over time – something that we do not do well currently. A key use of data is to establish whether individuals are meeting our expectation that every student will make excellent progress every year, regardless of their starting point.”

Professor Masters said this data was also essential “for evaluating the effectiveness of educational programs, teaching strategies and interventions”.

Microsoft Australia Teacher Engagement Manager Travis Smith told the symposium the emerging challenge for schools was having a consistent platform that unified the range of disparate systems used to collect a wide range of school data such as attendance and student results.

Mr Smith also addressed future developments including the potential for machine learning to improve student learning.

“Machine learning and powerful analytics will be able to drive things that traditionally have been the realm of the teacher, because it will be able to prescribe for us what interventions should be made based on all the data about a child, but also based on 15,000 other kids it has also seen at the same point.”

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