The Shelf Life of Assessment Data

The Shelf Life of Assessment DataDid you know that all assessment data have a shelf life and by shelf life I mean a time when it is no longer useful for making instructional or learning decisions and needs to be “refreshed” or “updated” with more current data? Did you also know that almost all data can be used either summatively or formatively? Let me give a couple of examples of each.

Let’s take state assessment data for example. In my district we took the state tests in March/April and received the data in the middle of July. That meant it was definitely summative as the purpose and use of the assessment was to determine how well students mastered standards and those results were used to rank schools; it was not received in time to use it during the school year. As a teacher, I could use the results with my new class in the fall to identify some strengths and challenges and establish groups for the first 2-3 weeks of school, which made it a bit formative in nature. Beyond those first few weeks, I needed another snapshot of where students were. What had they learned or lost over the summer? How much were we able to refresh, kick start, or move beyond in those first few weeks? The state assessment data had reached its shelf life (or expiration date) after a few weeks.

Or perhaps your district uses an interim assessment, maybe 3-4 times a year? Again, the data are very helpful when it arrives. We identify strengths and challenges, set up some interventions, do small group work…and want to keep those small groups flexible so that once students have mastered the concept they need, they move to a new group. Checking on where students are in their learning before we change groups, strategies, or instruction requires some form of check-in and usually after 2-3 weeks. At this point, the interim assessment data has met its shelf life as well.

There is a phrase in the business world, “knowledge loss,” that refers to the event when the knowledge that was gained from one set of data gradually becomes obsolete, so new data needs to be added on an ongoing basis. How do we know when is the right time to refresh the data in education? How do we refresh data in the most efficient and effective way?

Creating insights from data are important. In classrooms, schools and districts we spend time and resources collecting it, organizing it, and analyzing and interpreting it. So what we’re actually talking about here is that both the data, as well as the insights we gather from the data, have a shelf life.

The use of embedded formative assessment helps us counter the effects of the “expiration date” of data. Consider my first example of using the state assessment results from April to start school in August. Ok… to start with that data as a short-term measure, it gives me a place where students ended the previous year. I form small groups, do a few pre-assessments (anticipatory guide, synectic, self-assessment on the learning targets) and find out most students are where they ended the year with a few exceptions. We start instruction focused on some needs from the previous year. After 2-3 weeks of focused energy, I need to check in and see where all the students are in their learning. While we can revisit the strategies we used previously (post assessment, self-assessment or the follow-up on the anticipatory guide), we might also be checking in at the end of each day with an exit ticket so we don’t have to wait 2-3 weeks to make adjustments.

The value inherent in the time it takes to get assessment results, and the data’s shelf life, is not lost on educators or parents. In Grunwald Associates research studies on the perception of assessments, time was paramount in the effectiveness of assessments. The research found that with parents, assessment results begin losing their relevance within one month after assessments are administered. Among teachers and district administrators, the research results were similar, with a vast majority ‘completely’ or ‘somewhat’ in agreement that interim and formative assessment results are delivered more timely.

All assessment data has value, but the shelf life of data needs to be factored when applying it to the teaching moment and new data needs to be added along the way. Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or send us a message via Twitter (@NWEA). We’d love to hear from you!


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