3 tips for using data to drive instruction

Just like doctors checking a patient’s chart, teachers use assessment data as an academic temperature check. Teachers identify students’ needs, charting growth over time and ensuring that students get the ongoing support they deserve on their learning journey. But if teachers, like doctors, want to go beyond “do no harm,” they need tips for using data to drive instruction.

But what if we snoozed through the data-literacy portion of our teacher-training? I’m joking: like many teachers, neither I nor Ashley Cruz, NWEA professional learning consultant, received any such training—despite our medical counterparts doing so.

Assessment data is a prescription, and teachers need help reading the handwriting. I sat down with Ashley to talk through her best teacher tips to strengthen this teacher muscle and make it a more seamless part of the profession.

What is data-driven instruction?

Before I was ready to dive into the benefits of data-driven instruction, I asked Ashley to give me a definition. She explained that data-driven instruction is when teachers continually incorporate student assessment data into their instructional ecosystem to make district-wide and student-level shifts based on data over time. Let’s pull out some phrases to make this easier to understand:

  • “Continually incorporate.” Student test scores are not static. MAP® Growth™, for example, is often administered three times a year, which gives teachers multiple student data points in specific instructional areas. If teachers aren’t updating their knowledge of what students need, they are missing opportunities to help their students grow.
  • “Instructional ecosystem.” Test scores and student data are important, yes, but teachers know this is one component of many. Learner context, such as student rapport and relationships; family situations; and student strengths and growth opportunities evaluated through formative assessment (more on that later) are all important pieces.
  • “District-wide and student-level.” An assessment like MAP Growth can both showcase macro data (district, school, class) and highlight individual student-level data. This affects how districts make curricular decisions; how administrators and instructional coaches prioritize campus and grade-level support; and how classroom teachers implement whole-group, small-group, and individual instruction.
  • “Data over time.” Single, isolated assessments have their place, but they can also be compromised by everything from a student’s bad day to school absences. With assessments that recur over time, the goal is to track student growth over longer periods to notice trends while discarding irrelevant test performances.

While it can feel overwhelming, data-driven instruction is a muscle: after a bit of practice, using data to drive instruction will not only seem intuitive, but it will also save you time and yield real student gains.

A word about formative assessment

Peanut butter and jelly. Mario and Luigi. Data-driven instruction and formative assessment. When you hear about one, you’ll hear about the other.

Teachers, I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the term “formative assessment,” I second-guess myself. I suddenly feel like a first-year teacher, nodding along about some new concept or acronym. So I had Ashley confirm what I do know:

  • I know the difference between “formative” (ongoing, informal, lower-stakes) and “summative” (end-of-unit, let’s-move-on, record that as a grade).
  • I know that formative assessment can take many forms: a student’s oral explanation, exit tickets, quizzes, even homework.
  • I know formative assessment gives me feedback I should respond to immediately, adjusting my instruction.
  • I know formative assessment should not be graded.

Despite knowing these things, sometimes the fancy jargon hides what formative assessment is: it’s the ongoing temperature checks that we do each day with our students. And that’s why it is so important when it comes to data-driven instruction. Remember that your classroom is an ecosystem, with tiny dials and nodes shifting every day. Your star student, when really noticed, has thousands of opportunities for growth. Your student who needs a bit more support with fractions might be a whiz with solving variable equations.

Ready to get started using data to drive instructional shifts? Here are three doable, bite-sized tips to put your data to work.

Tip #1: Before anything, involve students in goal setting

There’s a reason this step is first. This isn’t a nice to have; it’s a must have. Involving students in the “why” and “what’s next” ensures learner agency and encourages buy-in, so students don’t feel as if an assessment is happening to them and compromise their performance because they’re unmotivated.

Often, teachers feel the pressure of dwindling class hours, but Ashley urges that even if there’s no time to conduct elaborate one-on-one student conversations, dedicated goal setting pays dividends. Involve students in using data to drive instruction. If you test with MAP Growth, review the Student Profile report with students and allow them to reflect on previous data to set an upcoming goal.

Try this:

  • Project a nameless Student Profile report on the board. Point out how to read it, what to look for, and what a reasonable goal might be for this student.
  • For each student, print out their Student Profile report for math and literacy (complete with graphs on the back).
  • Highlight the most relevant instructional areas to current and/or previous instruction up until this point.
  • Have students review their most recent RIT score on their graph and circle their projected growth for the next assessment window. Then add two or three additional RIT points for students to set their own individual goals. (You can adjust these during conferences, if need be, depending on your expectations for individual students.)
  • Allow some time for students to journal responses to a few questions like:
    • The last time I took this assessment, I remember…
    • If I did really well on this assessment, I can picture myself feeling…
    • One of my areas for growth is ____. I agree, because…
    • I’ve always been strong in ____. I can use that strength by…
  • As students journal, conference with others to point out specific areas for improvement while celebrating previous growth. This can look like walking around the room with previously collected formative assessment data for each student and holding a brief one-minute conference at their desks to identify specific standards they still need to master.
  • File the report and the journals away. Before and after each assessment, print new reports, review previous reports and journal entries, and offer new journal prompts.

How formative assessment comes into play: Say a group of students struggles in the numbers and operations instructional area. Look at the Learning Continuum for grade-level standards that fall within this instructional area. Identify recurring, spiraling standards (sometimes called “essential” or “power” standards). Call special attention to these standards as they appear in previous formative assessments, helping students see how they are a pillar. This way, students can better identify and vocalize the standards in which they need support—and you can better know what to supplement.

Tip #2: Flex your small groups based on instructional area data

Constantly flexing your small groups levels up your learners. Truly using data to drive instruction actually eliminates students being pigeonholed into the same group all the time. How can data drive this flexibility? Ashley recommends analyzing the RIT score within the context of instructional areas. You can do this by reviewing the Class Profile report.

Try this:

  • Sort your overall RIT scores from least to greatest. Keep this sorting in place, and then sort the most relevant instructional area to current or previous (or most emphasized!) instruction. Watch what happens to the overall RIT scores when you do this! Suddenly, RIT scores have nothing to do with areas of triage.
  • Pick one instructional area and zoom in for groupings. Pay attention to students who are close in RIT range, and consider learner context when creating groups.
  • Review the Learning Continuum for this instructional area, including its associated standards.
  • Examine formative assessment data that overlaps with these standards, and determine which standards may need to be strengthened using different instructional methods. Use your students’ RIT ranges, high and low, to determine what level of intervention or extension is needed.

How formative assessment comes into play: As you zoom in on specific areas of data to drive instruction, the larger ecosystem of formative assessment informs flexible grouping. Ongoing observation, quizzes, exit tickets, and other formative assessments might indicate that a student needs to move groups. These groups are meant to be flexible. Use MAP Growth data to get started, and use formative assessment data to keep going.

Tip #3: Math teachers, use Lexile levels in class

Assessments like MAP Growth measure math and reading all the way through to the SAT. Everything from teacher anecdotes to research on the science of reading supports the fact that a learner’s reading level affects their scores in math. These students need support with more complex math word problems.

Try this:

  • Review the Class Profile report and find a student’s Lexile level. Students with lower scores may need support with longer-form math problems.
  • Identify students with high Lexile scores who need support in math. They might be a great partner for a student with the opposite situation!
  • Keep this information in mind when making small groups. A higher Lexile reader may boost a group’s overall access to the material, allowing other students to contribute mathematically.
  • Consider implementing the Three Reads strategy with your whole class. First, read the question aloud just to understand the context. (What’s the story here? No numbers allowed!) Second, read the question aloud to interpret it together. (What are we solving for? What are we trying to find out? Third, read the question aloud to identify important (and potentially unimportant) information. (What are the numbers telling us?)

How formative assessment comes into play: Students may need support with reading comprehension rather than the math itself! During formative assessment, offer side-along solving to isolate the issue.

Nothing is more important than direct teacher observation and collaboration. Elementary math teachers, during team meetings, report what you’re noticing with your math learners’ reading skills. Ask for input and support from literacy teachers, who likely already have some strategies to share. This process can be trickier for secondary math teachers, who may no longer meet within grade-level departments—or even teach in the same building—but true intervention may be a tag-team effort.

Potential problems with data-driven instruction…and how to avoid them

It’s no secret that we teachers can carry a lot of data baggage. We might feel it reflects poorly on our instructional abilities. We might find ourselves in disbelief when scores don’t reflect what we know our students are capable of. We may feel like we’re moving in Jell-O when trying to make the smallest student growth gains. These feelings are valid, and many school districts have implemented cultural initiatives to de-electrify data’s emotional implications, instead supporting data-driven instruction from an empowered stance.

The tricky part is that sometimes, undesirable assessment results can become a reason for students to be excluded from grade-level rigor. We risk widening the gap when we only provide below grade level intervention for students. MAP Growth can support decision-making, but it should not be a barrier to content or types of tasks individual students access. Every student needs access to grade-level content.

Data-driven instruction is centered around student data, but sometimes our student data—especially from one given test day—is not entirely reflective of what a single student does or doesn’t know. It’s important to remember that the quality of the assessment practices within a classroom impact the quality of the data collected.

Data-driven instruction, one step at a time

Teachers, using data to drive instruction isn’t an all-or-nothing process. Start small because even small changes can move the needle on real student achievement, meeting the needs of our learners and helping them grow to meet their potential.

For further reading on your data-driven journey, check out our professional learning opportunities from NWEA, some led by Ashley herself!

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article