Data doesn’t lie, and it made Faith believe in herself.
Faith was a student who the state of Michigan said was a failure. But because one of her teachers used assessment data effectively, she made significant gains in her math skills. Not enough to be labeled “competent” according to the state cut scores, but enough to improve from the 18th to the 51st percentile.
Most importantly, because the data showed Faith the progress she was making, she persisted. She developed the grit educators speak of so often today and became one at-risk student who overcame the odds and graduated high school.
The trouble with data
I believe the concept of data has received a bad rap in education—and for understandable reasons. Over testing and using scores in a simplistic way to evaluate teachers and schools are at the root of the negative connotation data has developed since the advent of No Child Left Behind.
But data is just a tool. You can use a hammer to break a window, or you can use it to hang a painting. Likewise, you can use data for punitive purposes, or you can use it to empower teachers and students.
Changing how we think of data
To get the most from data in education, I believe a paradigm shift is needed from being “data driven” to being “data informed.” The former suggests a mindless pursuit of favorable numbers wherein student scores become the very purpose of the data, an end unto themselves. The latter implies a more thoughtful approach to assessment data: using it to inform instruction.
[D]ata is just a tool. You can use a hammer to break a window, or you can use it to hang a painting. Likewise, you can use data for punitive purposes, or you can use it to empower teachers and students.”
Done right, data is a useful tool that helps schools, teachers, and students improve learning outcomes. Here are four ways to go about it:
1. Request teacher input
Teachers must be given voice and choice on how and when to use data. They must be treated as the professionals they are, and their judgment must be honored and welcomed. They are the subject matter experts for their content, they know effective pedagogy and, most importantly, they know their students and how to reach them.
Sadly, this is not always the norm. Testing is often mandated in a top-down manner, and teacher input is often symbolic, coming after systemic decisions have been made. We need to go beyond state testing and develop a culture where data is used locally and frequently. And teachers need to have a seat at the table when decisions are made about how, exactly, this will happen.
2. Provide effective training
Educators need to be assessment literate so that a measured and appropriate number of benchmark and progress monitoring assessments can be used without over testing. It’s crucial that teachers, administrators, and other educators be given more frequent and useful training than is now generally the case.
Done right, data is a useful tool that helps schools, teachers, and students improve learning outcomes.”
Teachers in particular must be given clear guidance on how to read and apply data for lesson planning. Teachers should be part of the planning for their own learning and help to shape it to fit their needs and the needs of their students.
3. Make time to analyze
Teachers must be allowed to use assessments that are research based and provide reliable, non-biased data. Assessments must be equitable for all children, too.
Perhaps most importantly, assessments should provide practical information that can inform instructional practices. This is a time intensive part of assessment for sure, but if you want to do data right, you have to provide opportunities for teachers to consider how it can be used to benefit student learning.
4. Don’t forget the student perspective
When it comes to assessment decisions, students should not have the same kind of input as teachers and other educators, of course. Still, they must understand the purpose of every assessment they’re asked to take and they should be helped to gain the ability to use assessment data to set their learning goals. Students—alongside their parents—must have voice and choice in goal setting.
Let’s be frank. Most students and parents do not see assessment data as a useful tool that can be used to help students improve their learning. They, too, often see grades and test scores as an end product, not as useful information that can improve student learning. This must change.
Data surrounds us
For better or worse, we live in the Information Age. Sabermetrics is used in baseball while algorithms on Google help sell ads. The collection and analysis of data helps monitor climate change, and Amazon tells us what to buy next based on what we’ve bought before. The list of ways we use data goes on and on.
Educators can choose to use data for good. But only by doing it right.
Lisa Armstrong coauthored this post. She served as a public school teacher and data coach for nearly three decades before joining NWEA as a professional learning consultant in 2015. She’s currently an NWEA account executive based in Michigan. Lisa holds an MEd in educational leadership and administration from Wayne State University.