An Incredible Journey: Tools for Continuous Improvement
by Karen McKenzie-Wilson Research, Assessment, and Evaluation, Plano ISD, Plano, Texas
MultiMedia Schools November 2002 

Editor's Note: Moving from a basis of "that's the way we've always done it" to a process of continuous improvement informed by real data from real students may seem simple—until you try it. This past summer, I attended a presentation by Priscilla Kimery and Karen McKenzie-Wilson about the incredible improvements in performance they've achieved by making such a journey. Their story provides us with a detailed view of the tools and concepts required for success in the current environment of data-driven decision-making and will be the subject of their session at Internet Librarian this November in Palm Springs. Share it with your administration!


Plano Independent School District, located 23 miles north of Dallas, Texas, is a community of 260,000 people whose school district serves a broader area of about 340,000. Our rapid growth over the past 10 years has required that we build numerous new schools and carefully monitor our changing demographics. Our 61 schools serve approximately 49,000 students with a demographic breakdown of 67 percent white, 14 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent African American students.

Rapid growth, changing demographics, high-stakes testing, a state accountability system, and the desire to provide an excellent education to all students inspired the district team's decision to engage an outside auditing firm to conduct a curriculum audit. The process involved outside auditors, district and building administrators, and teachers and parents. It resulted in a report that provided a road map for creation of district instructional improvement goals. At the same time, in support of increased accountability and school-level involvement in the improvement effort, the state legislature passed laws mandating district and school planning and decision-making. So...armed with our map and instructions, we began our journey.

What Must We Do to Prepare For the Journey?

United leadership, data, goals, teamwork, communication, and continuous celebration of successes harnessed together propelled Plano ISD on our "incredible journey" of improving student performance. We began by developing our own local policies that outlined how the state-mandated improvement process should work. Each year at the district level, a district-based improvement committee (DBIC) reviews school improvement plans, student achievement data, and state mandates, then determines district improvement goals. Concurrently, the board of trustees and district leadership team review other big-picture goals such as district initiatives, community goals, or long-term goals. Together, the information derived by all groups becomes the driving force behind the goals, objectives, and activities of our schools and departments.

At the campus level, each campus establishes a site-based improvement committee (SBIC) to determine the school's annual improvement plan, focusing on improving student learning for all students. Both the DBIC and the SBIC members include representatives from district administration, campus administration, teachers, parents, and community and business representatives, thus ensuring broad representation. Information is communicated through school newsletters, the media, and public meetings. In order to ensure that all DBIC and SBIC members are prepared to handle the difficult job of working on the committees, analyzing data, and making decisions about school improvement, Plano developed a method of training facilitators to drive the process. These facilitators are school and district administrators who go through extensive training to prepare them for their roles. Each year, a new group, usually principal interns or assistant principals, learns the art of facilitation, as well as how to read the disaggregated scores on our state assessments, information from the Just for the Kids Web site, and nationally normed and criterion-referenced tests. First, the DBIC meets to establish the district goals, strategies, measures, and vision. This information is shared with the campus SBIC committees, which meet several times a year to develop and monitor goals and objectives for each school in conjunction with the DBIC goals. All SBIC plans are reviewed by area assistant superintendents and the DBIC.

What Do We Pack for the Journey?

Plano ISD studies data to focus our efforts on individual student growth over time. We use multiple indicators to encourage careful analysis of student and campus achievement as well as areas of need. These multiple indicators include both objective assessments and rubric-scored performance tasks in the various content areas. The use of these varied assessments captures both breadth and depth of student learning over time. Technology plays a vital role in housing data, making information available to district staff and the community, providing a means for collecting survey data, and assessing students. The following tools provide our staff with everything they need for a successful journey towards improved student performance.

First Tool. After investigating what it would take to effectively and efficiently provide our administrators, principals, teachers, and support staff with the data needed to impact student learning, we installed our first instructional management system, called ABACUS, which functions as a technology-based file cabinet and retrieval system that houses norm-referenced and criterion-referenced test data for tests such as SAT, ACT, ITBS, CogAT, MAP, and TAAS. Diagnostic test, district exam, and performance task data also reside in ABACUS, which enables district and campus staff to view individual and group performance by student, classroom, teacher, grade, campus, and demographic groups. Test items are linked with the curriculum and to specific instructional objectives. Reports that are generated include item analysis as well as mastery information on student performance by objective. Currently, we are upgrading from ABACUS to a totally integrated, user-friendly, Web-based instructional management system called EdSoft.

Second Tool. In response to the curriculum audit, we began in-depth program studies. Subject area studies are conducted on a rotating schedule by research, assessment, and evaluation personnel who work closely with curriculum coordinators to determine program descriptions, goals, strategies, and measures. Assessment data in conjunction with teacher, student, and administrator survey data are gathered and analyzed. Results, which include findings and recommendations generated from assessment data and program delivery data analysis, are reported to our board of trustees, district and campus staff and are posted on our district Web site. From this report, curriculum teams develop or revise action plans that form part of our district improvement and campus improvement plans.

Third Tool. The district Web site includes Internet and intranet access and serves a major role in disseminating information. State and local assessment data as well as all district-generated reports are posted on the Web site and made available internally and externally. Good communication and explanation of data, both within the district and with parents, provide everyone with information to positively impact student learning during the school day and at home. DBIC and SBIC data are also essential when decisions that impact student performance are made.

Fourth Tool. One of the most valuable tools that provides teachers with specific and immediate feedback on individual student achievement is Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Students take the computer-adapted reading, math, and language MAP tests that are tailored to each student's achievement level. As each student finishes a test, a scale score is immediately provided that helps teachers plan instructional programs, place new students, and screen students for special programs. Teachers then upload student test results over the Internet to NWEA, which provides more detailed individual student, class, school, and district reports within 24 hours.

Fifth Tool. At the campus level, teachers administer subjective and objective diagnostic tests or district exams and score these instruments through ABACUS. Test results are immediately available so teachers can analyze rubric-based observation data as well as objective data to form guided instruction groups and plan accelerated learning. They are able to immediately address each student's needs within a few days based on assessments administered, scored, and analyzed on campus.

How Do We Coordinate Our Wardrobes?

Putting the pieces does all of the data and use of technology translate into improved student learning and performance? What have students learned? What evidence exists to support our success at improving student growth over time? What were the essential conditions necessary for success to occur?

For Plano, technology is the vehicle that consolidates, illustrates, and communicates the data and information necessary for educators in partnership with parents to positively impact student learning and performance. Since it is the teacher who has the most profound influence on student learning, each teacher has access to every piece of information that could possibly contribute to helping students succeed. Every day, Plano ISD students benefit from the massive amount of data each teacher can access at the click of a mouse. District staff and campus support staff, such as librarians or media specialists, work with teachers to help them understand and use the information available to them. Using all the tools at their disposal, everyone in our district collaborates as a team to achieve the following goals:

  • Support continuous improvement.
  • Determine to what extent students are meeting the expectations for their learning.
  • Determine to what extent instructional practices support student achievement.
  • Determine to what extent the organizational conditions of the school support student learning.
  • Identify priorities for improvement and streamline curriculum.
  • Incorporate a balanced variety of measures to be used in decision-making.
  • Provide data to aid in campus and district decision-making.
  • Analyze to what extent research-based best practices are reflected in a campus' work.
  • Identify perceived strengths and limitations of instructional practices and organizational. conditions of each campus and within program areas.
  • Identify action steps for achieving campus and district goals.
  • Determine allotment of resources and alignment of personnel.

Shared vision, effective teamwork, measurable goals, easy access to performance data, and celebration of our successes were the staples of our district wardrobe that have resulted in our triumphant yet ongoing journey.

Why Should We Go?

If we stop to rest on our laurels or neglect to refine our methods, our students will suffer. As a result of district collaboration, student performance in Plano ISD has consistently improved over time as measured by national, state, and district assessments. We will continue our journey for our students. Thanks to the far-reaching vision and support from our superintendent, Dr. Douglas Otto, and our Associate Superintendent of Curriculum, Marilyn Brooks, Plano staff have a common goal and mission that will sustain us on our travels, wherever they may take us.

When Should We Go?

We should travel every minute of every day, no matter what roadblocks we encounter to ensure that each student will meet with educational and personal success.

Communications may be addressed to Karen McKenzie-Wilson, Research, Assessment, and Evaluation, Plano ISD, Plano, Texas; 469/752-8062; fax: 469/752-8035; e-mail:

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