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Accelerating Literacy Outcomes in Montana Through Evidence and Data Use

Northwest | January 12, 2023

Sitting together in a horseshoe-shaped table configuration, district leaders and educators from Montana's Laurel Public Schools recently collaborated with REL Northwest in two work sessions to review and examine evidence-based practices and data use regarding the district's literacy instruction.

State assessment results from spring 2019 showed that only 50% of Montana's students were at or above proficient in reading in grades 3-8; for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, that percentage was 25%.1 Achievement gaps between White students and students of other races and ethnicities range from 10 to 35 percentage points. With guidance and support from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, districts in the state are working to differentiate literacy instruction to raise achievement for all students.

Laurel Public Schools, a district of five schools and approximately 2,000 students, aims to improve student reading outcomes by helping educators more effectively interpret literacy data and respond to trends. The district's 2022 strategic plan aims for educators to take up evidence-based practices regarding the use of data to help target resources and support to improve student learning.

School and district leaders from Laurel Public Schools meet to discuss the use of data and  evidence-based practices in literacy instruction
School and district leaders from Laurel Public Schools meet to discuss the use of data and evidence-based practices in literacy instruction.
Source: Photo used by permission from Laurel Public Schools

Laurel uses a comprehensive reading framework, designed with support from Montana's Office of Public Instruction, that focuses on providing high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student needs. Educators use the multi-tiered framework to monitor student progress in reading, identify struggling readers, and make decisions about the instruction that will work best for each student. To help all students read well, Laurel's reading framework includes all grade levels and aims to create a comprehensive system for data use related to literacy.

REL Northwest is helping leaders in Laurel achieve the districts' goals through consistent use of data-based decision-making in literacy instruction. The collaboration involves educators at all grade levels (K-12) so that the entire district has a coherent system for data use in literacy. The first project with REL Northwest aims to increase the capacity of educators to use data — including screening, progress monitoring, and formative and summative classroom assessments — to enhance instruction and students' access to appropriate evidence-based literacy interventions.

Reviewing and Refining Data-Use Practices

What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guides

Interested in learning more about evidence-based recommendations to support literacy? Check out the following What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guides.

In the first working session, Laurel leaders and educators from elementary, middle, and high schools examined best practices from several What Works Clearinghouse literacy practice guides. For example, in the Assisting Students Struggling with Reading practice guide, the teams reviewed and discussed the third recommendation of providing "intensive, systematic instruction on up to three foundational reading skills in small groups to students who score below the benchmark score on universal screening." Participants then inventoried their current practices by answering the following questions:

  • What practices are working? What is your evidence?
  • What practices might need to be revisited? Why?
  • Based on your reading or group discussion, are there any new practices you would like to implement?

Next, they discussed how the recommendations in the practice guide aligned with how they currently screen and monitor student progress. In one part of the session, participants reviewed the four evidenced-based recommendations from the practice guide, Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9:

  1. Build students' decoding skills so they can read complex multisyllabic words
  2. Provide purposeful fluency-building activities to help students read effortlessly
  3. Routinely use a set of comprehension-building practices to help students make sense of the text
    1. Build students' world and word knowledge so they can make sense of the text
    2. Consistently provide students with opportunities to ask and answer questions to better understand the text they read
    3. Teach students a routine for determining the gist of a short section of text
    4. Teach students to monitor their comprehension as they read
  4. Provide students with opportunities to practice making sense of stretch text (i.e., challenging text) that will expose them to complex ideas and information

The team reflected on their current multi-tiered delivery system, where the gaps might be, and how they might refine what they are doing. The high school working team, for example, reviewed the third recommendation to "consistently provide students with opportunities to ask and answer questions to better understand the text they read." The team discussed whether and how they currently use formative assessment data to inform differentiated instruction and examined specific student work samples. The team discussed how Laurel can be flexible, nimble, and responsive to where student skills are now and how leaders can help support teachers in advancing equitable teaching and learning practices.

Following the first session, Laurel Public Schools Curriculum Director Charla Wetsch said, "The Institute of Education Sciences practice guides were incredibly helpful. I had (leaders) say, 'This is what research is saying is best practice. Are we really doing this?'"

Using Data to Improve Literacy Instruction

Over the first year of the Montana Evidence-Based Literacy Practices partnership, REL Northwest will provide Laurel Public School's literacy leadership team with training and coaching related to data systems and how they relate to the district's reading framework. The activities include:

  • Reviewing best practices in data use and literacy using What Works Clearinghouse practice guides
  • Examining Montana's guidance related to its reading framework and engaging in data inquiry
  • Completing a literacy data systems self-assessment
  • Using the results of the self-assessment to identify and address a problem of practice related to its reading framework
  • Creating an action plan for future improvement to its reading framework in the district

Throughout the partnership with REL Northwest, Laurel Public Schools will hone its collaborative, data-based decision-making processes that support improved literacy instruction.

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1 Montana Office of Public Instruction, English language/literacy state assessment results, (2019).


Caitlin Scott

Caitlin Scott

Elise Guest

Elise Guest

Cerelle Morrow

Cerelle Morrow

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