This past summer, days before the academic year started, about 700 teachers and more than 13,000 students in Rosemount got an early start on school.

The teachers spent two 12-hour workdays assessing elementary students, courtesy of a change in the school calendar approved in the spring that ends the school year earlier but uses those saved days for periodic student assessment.

Theoretically, teachers will have a better sense of their students' literacy and thus tailor lessons sooner than normal. And by making the classroom teaching more focused and more efficient, academic performance is expected to improve, district officials say.

"This is a huge change," said Steve Troen, the district's director of teaching and learning, "Our district really has been looking at using data to drive our instruction."

The youngest students were assessed during the summer on such things as how well they identified letters, what if anything they comprehended about reading, even how they held a book that was given to them.

Rosemount is one of only a few districts conducting early assessments, but educators said the district is the largest and probably has the most extensive assessment program.

Another change to the school calendar, for example, will allow secondary teachers to take a day every few months to conduct data analysis of their students and tweak the curriculum, focusing on students who are behind or not meeting expectations.

"I don't think another district did it the way we did it," said Jim Smola, president of Dakota County United Educators, the union representing the district's 2,000 teachers. "It was a vast undertaking."

Changing course

The early assessments were done by district teachers and used to tailor learning assignments to the elementary students so teachers and kids got right into learning on Day One.

District officials said teachers in years past did similar literacy assessments, but in a piecemeal manner, assessing each child in addition to their regular classroom duties.

"They couldn't really focus on their literacy instruction until they had all of these assessments done," Smola said.

Troen said that in years past it might have taken teachers eight to 10 weeks to complete these assessments. By dedicating two days prior to school to conduct the evaluations, Troen said, district teachers have been able to tailor lessons more quickly, which should improve academic performance.

"They've covered more material now than in previous years," said district spokesman Tony Taschner, who sees the new policy as making teaching and learning in the district more efficient. "That's the key word: efficient."

Rosemount has taken the additional step of setting aside time during the school year to do periodic reassessments to tweak lessons even more, focusing on students who are not meeting expectations.

The first additional data analysis day was done about two weeks ago and the next one is scheduled for January.

Teacher conferences

To make the change, the district had to negotiate with and get buy-in from its teachers, who were being asked to come in early, get trained, do the assessments, interpret them and adjust instructional content.

"Overall, they believe it's a good thing," Smola said of the teachers. "Overall, people thought this was a good idea."

The number of instructional days was reduced from 174 to 171 for secondary students and to 169 for elementary students. The district is still staying within the state mandated number of student contact hours but is disbursing them in a different manner.

The district surveyed teachers, staffers and parents about the changes to the calendar and the assessments. Everyone gave the change high marks.

"Parents saw the value in their children meeting their teacher" early, Troen said. "They are still student contact days, just one on one."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281