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New power behind differentiated learning

By Ruth Poulsen, ISB Assistant Director of Learning

Last week, I gathered my in-house focus group (yes, my daughters) to ask them what they hope that teachers have learned about them in the first few weeks of school. I was pleased when one answered, “I hope they understand my strengths and weaknesses, so they can help me and not get frustrated when I don’t understand.”

“Wow!” I thought. “How great! I’ve just spent two years working on a tool to give to International School of Beijing (ISB) teachers in order to support them in doing just that.”

The tool we’ve been working so hard on is a new data portal – a system that connects right into our PowerSchool student information database, that we can use to pull together all the disparate sources of academic data we have about each student and present that data to teachers at a glance.


The data that’s entered into the portal is customized by Elementary, Middle, and High School, but the basics are the same – we have two types of data: external assessments (like the MAP test and others), and internal common assessments (such as writing, math, and PE, as well as science and social studies in Middle and High School).

Teachers may want to know their students’ reading comprehension so they can check if they’ll be able to make sense of the text they’re handing them.

The new data portal has them covered.  

They may want to see which students have similar strengths and growth areas, so they know which small group might benefit from a strategy lesson on a skill they learned last year. 

They can now see that!

The new portal will help most if we keep in mind the strengths and limitations of the two types of data…

External test data


·      Reliable measure of your children’s basic skills in reading, math, and language usage 

·      Often, teachers can look back at several years’ data to see the growth trends


·      Cannot measure very deep cognitive complexity, such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation skills 

ISB Common Vertical Assessment data

Strength: Measures more cognitively complex tasks, such as…

·      Analyzing the strengths and limitations of a primary source in social studies 

·      Modeling a math problem or scientific phenomenon 

·      Writing a short narrative about their own life 

·      Assessing their own fitness and making a plan to improve it in health and PE

·      Identifying relevant evidence to support an argument

The data on whether the student can achieve these more cognitively complex goals provides a useful counterpoint to the sometimes-limiting external assessment data. It’s not hard to imagine an emergent bilingual student whose MAP scores look low because she doesn’t have the language skills to comprehend the questions, but who is an excellent critical thinker who can analyze and model a scientific phenomenon.


Sometimes the common assessment data is confounded by things like the way the question was worded (so the student got confused and didn’t apply the skill they were meant to be measuring).  

Together, these two types of data aim to provide a balanced view of what each student’s learning journey has been. 


The job of teachers is to learn deeply about students, so we can meet them where they are and give them just the right amount of challenge to help them grow.  

How can we help your sons and daughters work in the zone of proximal development, that sweet spot for optimal growth, if we don’t know where they’re starting? 

So, here is how I’ve suggested my colleagues use the new data portal: 

After you do your first pre-assessment, put it side by side with the student view of the portal.

·      Does anything surprise you?

·      What are this student’s areas of strength and where might they need extra support?  

·      Has this student been growing? 

Next, consider your actions based on the data.

·      Do you need to reteach an earlier skill? 

·      Create a small group?

·      Collaborate with a co-teacher to target specific skills?

·      How might this data influence what you assign as homework?

·      How you follow up on the data is up to your professional judgement, requiring all the art and skill you have as a teacher.

Now, as a final caveat, a data portal will never tell teachers which student was the lead of the school play last year, or which one worked for ages perfecting his design for a robotic animal, or which one loves reading graphic novels. Listening to students, making that connection, combined with providing just the right amount of challenge – these fundamental, professional skills that all ISB teachers possess will remain the most effective way of ensuring your children’s effective learning.

ISB is an extraordinary school, made so by a tradition of educational excellence spanning 40 years. Establishing, nurturing, and growing such an exceptional learning community has been and remains intentional; we work hard to build strong relationships so our learning is at its best.

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Experiential Learning