Oct 31 2006

Clark County School District Uses Online Tools to Improve Education

A Las Vegas school district uses online assessment to compare students to state standards.

As the fifth largest school district in the nation, Clark County School District covers more than 8,000 square miles in the Las Vegas area, educating about 290,000 students in 317 schools. CCSD works with a variety of school settings, including rural and urban, large and very small.

With the advent of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002, CCSD was determined to move beyond the rhetoric of teaching standards with the hope of establishing better assessment methods for evaluating student progress and learning.


The district recognized the complexity of bringing all teachers and administrators up to speed on the use of data-driven decision-making to improve student achievement. We developed a comprehensive plan to prioritize the state standards, develop formative assessments and implement an online application to manage all instructional data.

Douglas Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment in Englewood, Colo., says, “Some standards are absolutely essential if students are to enter the next grade with success and confidence.” CCSD and Educational Testing Service (ETS) Pulliam, in Princeton, N.J., began an external curriculum audit process that identified an essential subset of Nevada’s state standards, called the Power Standards.

The Power Standards are highly focused, specific areas of instructional emphasis. They are critical for student mastery of subjects. To identify these Power Standards, ETS Pulliam and CCSD reviewed the Nevada content standards; our K-12 language arts and mathematics curriculum; the objectives required on national, state and district standardized tests; and the foundational skills required to master the standards. The number of Power Standards for each grade varies, with roughly 39 per grade level.

These grade-level Power Standards are broken into three groups of approximately 13 standards for interim assessments that are administered three times a year through multiple-choice tests that include three questions per standard. The questions assess student understanding and learning on multiple cognitive levels. On the basic level skills, they ask who, what and when questions. At the higher levels, they ask more why and interpretive questions.


These interim assessments are scanned, scored and loaded into an online data-base within one week of administration. The database, the Instructional Data Management System (IDMS), was contracted through ETS Pulliam and allows teachers to access individual student data by state standards.

IDMS provides various components to support a standards-based environment: a data warehouse, online parental access to student progress with standards, a standards-based report card, a standards-based grade book, online assessment protocols, a standards-based test item bank (including the capability for constructed response), an instructional resources alignment matrix and a lesson planning interface. All components are aligned to state standards, which are the foundation of CCSD’s instructional program.

The IDMS is an evolving system, with changes driven by teacher and administrator feedback. By gathering data from help desk calls, user input, focus groups and other feedback, CCSD has worked with ETS Pulliam to strengthen the data integrity, simplify the navigation, produce user guides that are easy to follow and “turn on” system components.

By analyzing reliable districtwide student performance data from low-stakes interim assessments aligned to state standards, teachers can better target instruction. The interim assessments provide common data to identify struggling students and develop specific interventions within the first few weeks of school rather than waiting for state assessments in the spring. They provide administrators and teachers with a mechanism to assess student mastery of the most critical state standards and to assess them at a proficient level of understanding.


When districtwide interim assessments were implemented three years ago in CCSD, some teachers were dismayed about the test content. A typical comment was, “You seem to have aligned the interim assessments to state standards rather than my textbook.”

Other teachers — accustomed to standardized tests being kept under lock and key — had to adjust to being allowed to look at the test questions. It was a surprise to them to learn that if 70 percent of their students get a question wrong, they should take out the test and review that question.

Initially, there was an outcry about too much testing. But, even though these interim assessments are not mandated by the state or federal government, teachers felt these tests were the only ones that provided what they needed to evaluate student progress. In the end, teachers chose to keep them.

With NCLB and federal and state tests increasing accountability, many teachers began viewing nonclassroom-based assessments as a contest of outside accountability. That led to questions such as “Do you have test preparation materials for the interim assessments?” and “How did my kids do compared to the district?” Understanding that formative, low-stakes assessments are part of the instructional process is still a foreign concept for many.

Teachers loved the fact that performance data for individual students on each standard was available for them online within a week or two of the test. During one of the first training sessions, teachers were amazed that they could see results from a test taken five days earlier.

CCSD recognized that if the interim assessments were to provide real value, teachers must learn to interpret and use the data in meaningful ways. We implemented that training through different models and developed training sessions to show teachers how to analyze and interpret student data.

So far, we have trained about 3,000 of our 17,000 teachers. With schools spread over such a large area, we have reached teachers through mass training sessions, online resources and tutorials, teacher-trainer models and lighthouse/pilot school projects.

Training focuses on structuring collaborative discussions on using data for improving instruction, unwrapping skills to understand foundational expertise and vocabulary needed to master the standard, differentiating among types of assessments to make appropriate interpretations, and exploring ways to evaluate learning, such as performance-based assessment and task analysis.

Since teachers don’t have to spend as much time looking for or compiling data, they can devote more time to analyzing and discussing how to target instruction to help students achieve mastery of state standards.

R. Karlene McCormick-Lee, Ed.D., is the assistant superintendent of research, accountability and innovation for Las Vegas’ Clark County School District.


The Instructional Data Management System is an online database designed so Clark County School District teachers can efficiently access individual student’s test data according to the different state standards and other useful information.