ABOUT THE DISTRICT
Dedham Public Schools is located in Dedham, Mass., a historic suburban town 10 miles south of Boston and is the oldest public school system in the United States. The district enrolls 2,567 students. It includes four elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and the Curran Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC), which houses all preschool and kindergarten students in the district.
- Too many assessments taking too much of teachers’ time
- Lack of easy-to-understand data from existing assessments
- New state guidelines for early literacy and dyslexia
- Increased efficiency and time savings for teachers
- Increased student engagement and enjoyment
- Increased teacher collaboration and use of data to target instruction
- Increased focus on evidence-based early literacy instruction
- More strategic instruction and intervention at Tiers 1, 2, and 3
EarlyBird Pilot In Dedham Public Schools
Kindergarten teachers administer a variety of assessments that can yield a wealth of information about their students’ skills. While planning for the 2021-22 school year, educational leaders in Dedham Public Schools (DPS) decided to take a fresh look at their approach to early literacy assessment.
“We started using a well-known computer-adaptive assessment in early literacy about five years ago. One of the things we found was that it wasn’t very teacher-friendly in terms of helping teachers understand the specific needs of their kindergarten students,” said Heather L. B. Smith, Ed.D., PK-8 humanities curriculum coordinator for DPS. “Another thing we found was that while we were using the early literacy assessment as our universal screening tool, we were primarily using it to identify students for intervention. We weren’t really using it to inform Tier 1 instruction.”
DPS is located in Dedham, Mass., a historic suburban town 10 miles south of Boston. The district enrolls 2,567 students. It includes four elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and the Curran Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC), which houses all preschool and kindergarten students in the district.
New guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) also prompted DPS to consider a change to its assessment program. “When we reviewed the Mass Literacy guide and the new Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines, I thought, ‘How are we going to manage all of this?’ That’s what led us to EarlyBird,” said Smith.
Learning About EarlyBird
Developed at Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research, EarlyBird brings together all the relevant predictors of reading in one easy-to-administer assessment. It provides a proactive, preventive way to identify students at risk of struggling with reading, and it supports teachers with data and resources so they can intervene earlier.
“We first came upon EarlyBird when we participated in a validation study for the assessment two years ago,” said Smith. “Our staff loved working with the people from EarlyBird, and we were impressed with how positively students responded to the assessment. They felt like they were playing a game. It’s developmentally friendly, and our teachers had a very positive experience with it.”
Reducing Assessment Time With A Comprehensive Screener
DPS began using EarlyBird as a universal screening tool with all kindergarten students in fall 2021. Around the same time, the Massachusetts DESE selected EarlyBird as an approved early literacy screening assessment.
“EarlyBird aligns with our state guidelines for early literacy and the Mass Dyslexia Guidelines. So when we looked at all the subtests in EarlyBird, we began to think about how we could consolidate and streamline our assessments so we can spend more time instructing students and less time assessing,” said Smith. “We are also starting to think about how we can align our instruction with evidencebased practices and the science of reading. When we looked at the work of Dr. Nadine Gaab, which is incredibly impressive, that was another factor that moved us toward EarlyBird.”
EarlyBird is based on the research of Dr. Gaab, Dr. Yaacov Petscher, and other leading researchers. It integrates key literacy milestones shown to be most predictive of later reading success with powerful analytics to identify where children are struggling on their learning pathway. The cloud-based EarlyBird platform includes:
- A game-based app that provides comprehensive, validated student testing
- A web-based dashboard that points teachers to easy-to-understand data
- Evidence-based resources for individuals or groups of students
At the ECEC, kindergarten students self-administer the EarlyBird screener using a tablet and headset. In the game, they join their new friend, Pip, for a delightful journey through the city, meeting animal friends along the way. The tablet-based game assesses students while they play, with auto-scoring features that save teachers time.
“The fact that students can be so independent with EarlyBird was a huge selling point for us and helped with teacher buy-in,” said Smith. “Kindergarten teachers spend a lot of time assessing one-onone so being able to cut down that time is really helpful.”
Conducting Universal Screening
DPS conducted a beginning-of-year assessment in EarlyBird in September 2021, and has scheduled subsequent assessments for late January and late April 2022. EarlyBird assesses students’ skills in areas such as naming speed, sound/symbol correspondence, phonemic/phonological awareness, and oral language. In addition to individual subtest scores, it provides an overall risk score for each student based on a unique multi-factoral algorithm of the subtests.
“EarlyBird gives us the opportunity to screen students for risk of dyslexia, but the most important part of this assessment is how teachers can use the data to make instructional shifts to address the specific skills students need to work on,” said Smith.
Acting On Data
As part of the EarlyBird solution, DPS kindergarten teachers are participating in professional development after each EarlyBird assessment to learn how to analyze and act on the data.
“When we were using our previous early literacy assessment, it was a challenge to interpret the results of the assessment. You’d have to reach out to their support staff or know exactly where to find the information in this massive 1,000-page manual,” said Smith. “The way EarlyBird presents data is so teacher-friendly. The fact that teachers are able to quickly access a dashboard and find the answers they need has been super helpful. The next-steps resources are helpful, too, and they’re presented in a way that makes perfect sense to teachers.”
Supporting Tier 1 Instruction
With EarlyBird, DPS teachers now have the data they need to identify which skills to support with Tier 1 instruction.
“In November, I had a chunk of time with our classroom teachers during an in-service day, so we took that time to develop a deeper understanding of the sound/symbol component of the EarlyBird assessment,” said Smith. “We discussed the letter name and letter sound subtests, and the skills they measure. Then teachers broke into teams and examined their EarlyBird data to determine what their greatest needs were for Tier 1 instruction. They looked up the resources in EarlyBird to address those needs, worked through some of the instructional routines, and planned how to build those routines into their centers. That’s made a big difference in their classrooms.”
Saving Time On Other Assessments
According to Smith, the EarlyBird data is also helping teachers re-think other assessments, which is saving time.
“We have started using EarlyBird to help us determine which students might be ready for the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS),” said Smith. “Historically, we’ve done the BAS early in the year and with all kindergartners. With EarlyBird, we now have in-depth data to help us determine whether or not students might be ready for the enhanced comprehension conversation portion of the BAS. This means that teachers will no longer have to take time away from instruction for a one-on-one assessment if a student isn’t ready.”
Identifying Students For Intervention
To identify students for intervention, DPS educators conduct a step-by-step review of the data.
“After the EarlyBird assessment in September, we did an initial pass through the data looking at how students performed on subtests such as rapid automatized naming (RAN), blending, non-word repetition, and following directions to see how many students were potentially at risk for dyslexia. Then we narrowed that criteria further to look at how students performed on subtests for letter names and letter sounds. Then we used that to rank order priority and need, and we took our highest-need students into intervention,” Smith explained. “When we administer EarlyBird this winter, we will look at areas such as phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and comprehension, and layer on interventions as needed while students progress through our curriculum.”
Supporting Balanced Literacy And Structured Literacy Approaches
To bolster teachers’ skills, Smith also requested additional professional development from EarlyBird focused on the continuum of learning and the science of reading.
“The EarlyBird staff is wonderful to work with, and the professional development has been really helpful. I appreciate having partners who are willing to look at the needs of our teachers and students rather than just provide a training that everybody gets,” she said.
“We currently have a balanced literacy model in place, but we also want to look at how we can bring the science of reading into balanced literacy classrooms. So much has been published about the science of reading over the last few years that even those of us who are trained in reading have a lot to learn. I see this as a multi-year endeavor, and there’s a lot of momentum because teachers are excited to learn. I already see shifts starting to happen around components such as phonemic awareness and phonics thanks to the data we’re getting from EarlyBird.”
For example, after the first assessment in September, teachers saw that a number of students scored lower in phonological awareness than in other areas. “In looking at the EarlyBird data, we determined that we might need to make some slight adjustments in how we deliver Fundations, and we saw the need for Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness Curriculum which we just started this year.”
Seeing Shifts In The Classroom
After just three months of using EarlyBird, DPS is seeing significant shifts in its kindergarten classrooms.
“EarlyBird has prompted us to move away from a one-size-fits-all program to more targeted instruction and interventions that address the specific skill needs of our students,” said Smith. “We’re being more strategic about how we match our curriculum to students’ needs. We’re thinking about the continuum of reading and providing explicit, systematic instruction to students in early foundational skills. We’re seeing changes in our practice, which is exciting.”
Smith is sharing her experiences with educators from other districts as well. “I’m part of the Mass Literacy network with DESE, and I meet fairly regularly with coordinators from other districts,” she said. “I have had a lot of people ask me about EarlyBird. Once they hear about it, they say, “Oh! That sounds so much better than what we’re doing!”