The message at the Oct. 21 Board of Education meeting was that the district is using big data to customize the way it teaches students.

Whereas in the past, educators might have had to tailor their teaching methods based on their overall ideas about how students performed on the last test or how engaged they were in class, but these days, teachers and administrators can sit down and point to precise percentages, individual performances and recognized patterns over time, thanks to the amount of data coming in from standardized tests.

Over the summer, the district receives the students' grades as well as school benchmark tests and teacher assessments.

"When we received the results we spend a lot of time ... analyzing it," said interim Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jill Correnty, who gave a presentation on student assessment with Saxe Middle School Principal Greg Macedo. "We also recognize that the CMT does not stand alone."

Correnty said their level of analysis gets more and more specific -- from districtwide, to schoolwide, to gradewide, even down to the individual student.

Adding into the mix the district's benchmark tests, gradewide school-issued tests, which students take two or three times per year depending on grade, individual profiles of students are formed.

At the K-4 level, the district employs data teams, administrators and experts who meet with teachers as a group to go over students' results and offer suggestions for customizing the teaching methods or attention to students based on the data, Correnty said. For each student scoring below or above a certain range on the benchmarks, an individual action plan is created with the teachers for the intervention or enrichment of those students.

"The teachers who differentiate instruction get great results," Correnty said.

Based on the conclusions of the analysis of benchmark tests, CMT results, and teacher evaluations, teachers and faculty experts work to think of better ways of teaching the material to different students.

At the middle school, the teaching plans seemed to be a bit more general. Macedo said each department meets weekly to discuss curriculum and instruction. As an example of the kind of work they do, he said through a cumulative analysis of data, the school learned that eighth-grade boys were doing worse in math than seventh-grade boys. They looked to see what might be the differences in the nature of the curriculum in seventh grade, and looked for any methods they could ask eighth-grade teachers to emulate.

"One key piece of progress is progress monitoring," Macedo said. "As we become more precise in learning about students, we can be more precise in our instruction."

Both Macedo and Correnty, however, stressed that there was a limit to the data, saying that one number alone, like a CMT score, does not describe how a student learns and grows. Students, like all people, are complicated, and though it may be easier to draw lessons from quantitative data, it does not present the whole story of a child, they said.

New Canaan High School Principal Bryan Luizzi, asked by the board to speak, said when eighth-graders move up to the high school, the administration looks at a range of information on the students, not only CMT scores.

"We do look at (teacher) recommendations for students coming up from eighth grade, and internal data from over the years," he said. "Both qualitative and quantitative. That one data point (CMT) certainly is informative, but there's a lot more."

The board seemed satisfied that the approach employed at the K-8 levels was working well. The members' questions tended more toward specifics, such as how students would take tests on computers in the future, and the importance of maintaining budget growth in continuing programs, but no members spoke critically of the data analysis program.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews

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