The insider’s guide to getting your school’s Comprehensive Needs Assessment (or program evaluation) right.

Posted by Class Measures


The comprehensive needs assessment, or program evaluation, of a school is actually a pretty difficult review to get right. Getting it wrong impacts your staff, your culture, and ultimately your students. So, in this guide we explore seven things that, in our experience, you need to do to ‘get it right’ and optimize the value (and meaning) your school derives from the process….

Evaluations of teaching and learning in schools are becoming commonplace and go by different names. The ESSA legislation refers to them as comprehensive needs assessments and others call them program evaluations.  At Class Measures we call them school quality reviews. Schools and school districts can use the results of a school quality review to drive positive change and bring about clear direction in school improvement; it becomes much more than a check-box exercise. The school quality review becomes a powerful tool that benefits your staff and students as you embark on the next stage of your school improvement journey.

While there is no single or ‘best’ way to conduct a school quality review – because the detail should be developed in collaboration with school and district leaders – Class Measures has some tips to help you avoid assessment pitfalls and only spend time and other resources on activities that bring about impact.

Tip 1: Remove bias and preconceptions – right from the start

Avoiding bias is a challenge schools face when conducting evaluations with school staff. We are naturally predisposed to be more lenient on ourselves, and our colleagues/peers, than we would be on people from outside our circles. School leaders need to be aware of staff bias that can come into the assessment process and beware of assuming the ‘need’ is already known and/or being addressed. Accurate data and solid reasoning and evidence are important, if the school is to derive true value from the assessment with immediate and actionable, objective feedback.

Tip 2: Analyze your data – rigorously questioning to get to the root-cause

One way to help ensure you remove any bias and get to the true root-cause of the issues in the school is a continuous focus on what affects student learning.

  • What is the real issue behind a 20 percent chronic absenteeism rate in the 10th grade for example? One way to know this is to talk to the students and to their parents so you can learn the real reasons students are not attending school. Are they bored in the classroom, or working jobs or caring for parents, for example?
  • Why are 3rd grade reading scores 50 percent lower than expected? Is reading co-ordinated across grade levels; is the instructional quality consistent; are the materials up to date and in line with best practice; do parents read with their child at home, etc?

We need to keep asking ‘why’ about each suspected need, to get to the root cause of the problem, so that we can put in place an improvement action plan that will bring about the desired result

Tip 3: Focus on the students – always observe whether students are engaged and learning

Linked to the previous advice, focusing on the students is crucial to maximizing the value of a school quality review. Learning isn’t happening in the most effective way in underperforming schools, so it’s important to assess the quality of learning in the school, rather than getting caught up in assessing the quality of instruction. This requires that review team members know how to observe the impact of teaching in the classroom. Losing focus on the student introduces the risk of the process becoming in the interest of staff. In our experience, the result of misplaced focus on the quality of instruction tends to be that schools put in place predetermined professional development programs not focused on improving student learning, but rather on the “wants” or “needs” of teachers determined by school leaders.

Tip 4: Embrace collaboration – carry out the process with your teachers, staff, students and parents

Experience tells us that staff members do not react well to a school quality review if the process is carried out ‘on them’ rather than ‘with them’. Being listed in the 5 percent of lowest performing schools can affect morale in the first place – and carrying out the review without staff buy-in to the process usually results in further damage to staff morale, exacerbating any negative aspects of the school’s culture, and ultimately extending the school’s low performing categorization. It’s also important to ensure the outcomes of the review are aligned with school, district and teacher goals. Take time to consider how you want your teachers to collaborate with the evaluation team and keep lines of communication open and effective. Determining a level of parent/family engagement and strategizing on how to improve it is also vital, if you are to bring about sustainable school improvement – as children who have parents or guardians involved in their education are more likely to be successful.

Tip 5: Increase the value of your school quality review – evaluate the success of all students

We’re always concerned when schools don’t take the opportunity to include an analysis of the performance of student sub-groups in the school quality review. After all, without including them, the review of the school is far from comprehensive, the needs of students who may be at-risk get overlooked, and the value you derive from the review process will be limited. Working with an independent assessment team that reviews your data to understand the specific needs of your student sub-groups is certainly advisable, if not critical. For example, here at Class Measures we have developed a targeted school quality review for English learners, dedicated to improving pedagogy to close the achievement gap for English learners.

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Tip 6: Support improvement planning with staff and a realistic budget

One of the most powerful ways a school quality review can be used is to influence policy and funding decisions in your school and provide evidence that supports an effective allocation of resources. The more detailed your analysis of the data, the more robust the resulting decisions, and the more likely you are to bring about positive impact with a finite budget and resources.

And finally, perhaps the most important tip of all…

Tip 7: Take action – with clear strategies and measurable goals to address the needs you have identified in priority order
If your school’s quality review sits on a shelf after it is completed – you probably haven’t ‘got it right’. Identifying and prioritizing your needs through detailed analyses should define the services you need to implement to improve learning and teaching. Subsequent to the completion of the review take the time to identify appropriate strategies to address your needs, Build your action plan, and set measurable improvement goals that will motivate your whole team and unify your school on its improvement journey.

How we conduct Quality School Reviews

Our own recommended school quality review methodology typically involves a small team of educators visiting each school in the district that has been identified as underperforming. The team begins with a document review, examining student achievement data – attendance, drop out, suspension (in and out of school) and graduation rates – as well as student support data; strategy documents; program evaluations; enrolment data and research reports to develop areas of enquiry.

It’s then best practice to survey and interview the school leadership team, teachers, specialists such as English learner and special education teachers, and hold focus groups with parents, students, members of school committees/trustees etc., to determine the root-cause of what the data are indicating are issues. The team is then able to start observations of instruction, to assess whether teachers are using strategies that engage students, so they are learning what is being taught.

After completion of interviews, focus groups, and observations, a report is prepared for the school and/or district summarizing the findings of the review. And then the important work starts. Using the findings of the report, Class Measures school improvement experts work with the leaders and teachers in the school to prioritize needs and develop action plans to address the issues uncovered during the review. Our team is also able to provide specialist support and coaching to support the leadership and teachers on this journey.



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