Fort Mill school officials are bringing back a middle school tool that many educators believe is key to boosting student achievement.
Two years ago, the district, citing cuts in state money, stopped paying for computerized tests that gauge middle schoolers' progress in math and language. The tests, called Measure of Academic Progress, give teachers and students immediate feedback, pinpointing strengths and weak spots.
Teachers used them to tailor lessons to students' needs.
Losing MAP, teachers said, made it more difficult to assess students' abilities and whether they mastered skills.
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"It was very disheartening," Fort Mill schools testing coordinator Jan West said. "We had it for six years. The devastating part was that we had spent so much time and energy training teachers to use the data."
Schools have tested students for decades, but technology is updating the practice with elaborate computer-based exams, like MAP, that become harder or easier depending on student responses.
How best to use the reams of information to improve teaching is a hot topic in the national debate on the future of education.
In his push to reform America's public schools, President Barack Obama touts the need to "use cutting-edge data systems to track a child's progress throughout their academic career, and to link that child's progress to their teachers so we know what's working and what's not working in the classroom."
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pointed to "districts making exemplary use of data systems to let parents, teachers and administrators know how best to support their students."
Measure of Academic Progress, West said, is a piece of that puzzle.
In addition to quick, detailed feedback on students, scores tracked over time offer a snapshot of a student's academic path.
"It's one of the most useful assessments," Fort Mill Middle Principal Greg Norton said.
Roughly 4 million students in hundreds of schools nationwide take MAP tests, according to the Northwest Evaluation Association, which developed the system in the 1980s.
All four of York County's school district's use the tests. Fort Mill's elementary schools never lost them.
Before, a teacher had to spend weeks getting to know a student's learning style, York schools Superintendent Vernon Prosser said. Now, you know before he walks in the classroom.
Fort Mill's three middle schools - Springfield, Gold Hill and Fort Mill - found out this week that MAP is coming back.
"I was tickled to death," Gold Hill Middle math teacher Tracy Young said. "As both a parent and a teacher, I'm excited."
Students take the tests at least twice a year. Teachers get quick results that show whether students are progressing, plus a detailed analysis of where students lack skills.
Students are taught how to interpret the scores, and parents get copies too.
It's a relief, Young said.
In place of MAP, teachers have been quizzing students more often to get an idea of whether they're making progress. That took time and planning and wasn't as accurate, Young said.
Bringing back the program cost just more than $27,000.
The district freed that money by renegotiating contracts with several vendors and scoring a discount on the tests, Assistant Superintendent Marty McGinn said. The district also learned that the state would reimburse part of the cost of the test.
"We started looking at how we use and analyze student data and we realized we really need that tool," McGinn said.