Robert Zywicki, Ed.D.
In the first few days after I became superintendent of Weehawken in 2016, a high school junior who had recently dropped out came to my attention. Looking into Jane’s history, I learned there were home stressors involved in her leaving school and that her failure to find academic success led to other at-risk behavior. It’s the kids with the most challenging circumstances who need the most love and support, and we have a personal responsibility as educators to provide that, so I said to the administrative team “Let’s go get her, let’s bring her back.”
There was skepticism that we could help her since a system wasn’t in place with the flexibility to accommodate a student with her needs (for example, the regular full academic day would not suit her since she had to work part-time to help support her siblings). Helping Jane became an opportunity to develop the framework that would assist similar kids and ultimately lead to more Weehawken students graduating from high school – a key goal of the Board of Education at the time.
An assistant principal literally knocked on her door and convinced Jane to return to school. The alternative academic pathway that we created for her combined hybrid learning, one-to-one home instruction, summer school, some classes during the day as her schedule permitted, and a great deal of emotional support. We showed her that we were committed to her education, that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but she had to put in the work.
Jane became the first person in her family to graduate high school. There were no freebies here, she completed every single graduation requirement.
Standing with her on stage when she received her diploma was one of the best moments of my career. I was so proud of her and the heroic and compassionate efforts of everyone who shepherded her through.
The success of Jane’s journey to meet all the New Jersey and local high school graduation requirements was aided by Response to Intervention (RTI) protocols, enabled by LinkIt’s warehousing and analytics to help identify her specific academic needs and chart her growth.
RTI is a tiered process of providing personalized remediation to students based on their unique learning needs. Tier one support is in-class differentiated instruction, tier two is targeted small group instruction, and tier three is intensive one-to-one instruction.
RTI is driven by data at every level, including gauging student responsiveness to intervention strategies, and has been proven to be incredibly powerful when done with fidelity. In an update to his landmark meta study, John Hattie, creator of “Visible Learning,” examined the effectiveness of more than 256 student influences and found that RTI is tied for fourth as the most powerful influencer of student achievement (Hattie, 2017, www.visiblelearningplus.com). However, research demonstrating the effectiveness of the tenets of RTI goes back nearly 50 years.
With RTI now a requisite of QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum), the state department of education’s monitoring and self-evaluation system for school districts, practicing RTI with fidelity is a topic of interest across New Jersey.
Early identification of struggling students, rapid responsiveness and differentiated instruction, and vigilant progress monitoring are foundational elements of RTI.
RTI begins with universal screenings, which provide the early warning system for students in all grade levels. Typically administered in the fall, winter, and spring, the screenings identify those students who are making adequate progress toward meeting grade-level goals and those who are falling behind.
LinkIt! offers three benchmark assessments per year for each grade (K-HS) in both English Language Arts and Math that can be used as part of a district’s screening and progress monitoring process. The benchmarks are aligned to New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS), and the results can be sorted to show standards, topics, and skills. In the state testing grades, the results automatically generate predictors of how each student will score on the end of year PARCC/NJSLA assessments (e.g., Exceeding Expectations, Meeting Expectations, etc.).
A benefit of using LinkIt! benchmarks is the ability to drill down in the results to the test question level, providing teachers, RTI interventionists, and instructional specialists with unique cognitive insight; each incorrect answer is accompanied with a suggestion explaining why the student might have selected the answer he or she did. This knowledge can help quickly correct a misunderstood process or definition.
Third-party benchmarks are easily integrated into the LinkIt! platform, as are other types of assessments and data sets. This feature has particular relevance to students in tiered intervention since they are assessed more frequently than other students using a wider variety of learning/assessment tools. Whether it’s i-Ready, STAR, NWEA MAP, DIBELS, DRA, F&P, or even a district’s/teacher’s own assessments, LinkIt! can warehouse virtually any data point. By warehousing all data under a single unified platform, LinkIt! makes it simple for teachers and administrators to track student growth across assessments and over time.
The LinkIt! interface and reports maintain consistent colors, charts, and graphics for all testing data, simplifying the analysis. The cohesive color-coded format makes communication with parents and students more impactful, too. By allowing information to be quickly understood, LinkIt! empowers educators to get right down to the business of establishing goals and discussing progress.
RTI provides the instructional first aid to improve a student’s academic health. As with medical treatment, successful intervention requires rapid, targeted delivery. Prior to the start of a school year, LinkIt! offers customizable data snapshots called Fingertips that show the historical achievement levels of each student. Districts select the criteria to include (e.g., end of the year PARCC/NJSLA scores, LinkIt! benchmarks, prior year’s grades across all subjects, attendance etc.) and before teachers even meet their classes, LinkIt! provides an overview of each student. These reports speed up identification of kids who need help with a specific skill or standard and allow teachers to begin differentiating instruction on the very first day of school, not weeks down the road. Time between tier one and referral to higher tiers is often reduced as well.
Instructional data can also identify issues at the building and district level and help allocate resources to better meet the needs of students.
LinkIt! was at the heart of the RTI program that we established at Weehawken High School and strengthened throughout the district while I was superintendent. We used LinkIt! benchmarks to universally screen all kids; LinkIt! was also used to collect performance data, monitor progress, adjusting interventions, and set instructional goals accordingly.
Data showed that the high school would benefit from a full-time reading specialist, so we put one in place along with a full-time behaviorist, and added other academic supports and interventions. We established a two-year Algebra I sequence for our most at-risk students, began a virtual academy for remediation and credit recovery, setup math and ELA labs, and created the Graduation Pathways Academy which offers a variety of online, hybrid, and face-to-face instructional models.
The sizeable increase is a compelling statistic, something that everyone involved should be proud of, but its meaning is considerably more powerful: students challenged themselves and persevered; they overcame obstacles, transformed their lives, and illuminated brighter tomorrows. We helped Jane and so many other students like her chart a course to success.
In my early days with RTI, I was using paper spreadsheets and then Google Sheets and Google Forms to compile data and track progress. LinkIt! has systematized the data collection process and distilled analysis down to a few clicks of the mouse. LinkIt! doesn’t do the thinking for you; however, when combined with a regular assessment cycle, LinkIt’s stream of easy-to-interpret “real time” data and analytics empower teachers, administrators, and RTI/study teams with the ability to make fast, informed decisions about instructional strategies and student tier placement.
About the Author
Robert J. Zywicki, Ed.D., is the Superintendent of the Mount Olive Township School District located in Morris County. A frequent presenter at state and national conferences, he has spoken about a variety of topics including RTI, organizational leadership, and project-based learning. He teaches at Rutgers and coordinates the design and delivery of research based professional development programs for the university’s Center for Effective School Practices (https://cesp.rutgers.edu). You can follow him on Twitter at @ZywickiR.
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