Data Is So Useful, If You Use It

By Bob Thompson, Education Consultant, Expect Educational Excellence

Most districts will have completed the second round of benchmark assessments by now using AIMSweb, MAP, STAR 360 or some other common screening instrument. The data has become available and most schools will have a session with teachers to examine the data and compare it to the fall data in order to measure progress at mid-year. What happens after that?

All too often, nothing.

A critical step is often missing at this point, but it can be addressed with an easy question. What changes to instruction are going to take place in response to the data? If this question is not asked, and if changes are not documented and followed through upon, a harder question needs to be asked. Why are you spending all of this time and money testing your students?

Going through data and getting nods of assurance from teachers that they understand the numbers and then not requiring teachers to develop and implement a plan in response is like seeing cars in the ditch from sliding off an icy road and continuing down the highway driving over the speed limit. The driver is relying upon chance to keep from making a critical mistake and not making it to the desired destination.

Data-based decision-making is not rocket science, although the terms conjure up visions of psychometric equations on a whiteboard with all of those funny looking symbols that few people understand. Data-based decision-making can be done by answering three questions.

  1. What does one objectively see in the data?
  2. What does one wonder, or what questions does the data present?
  3. What changes will be developed in response?

Answering these questions in response to a data set is all that needs to be done in a data session. Most teachers are adequately prepared to answer these questions by utilizing their knowledge and skill and understanding of students’ needs. So, ask the questions.

The next step is documentation and follow through. It is not enough to merely think about changes. Changes in response to data must be deliberate and tied to measurable goals. Goals set at the beginning of the year should be revisited and revised. Mid-year assessment data provides the perfect vehicle for accomplishing this. Write everything down. Share the information with administrators and other teachers and parents. Plan to revisit the goals again and again when new data becomes available.

If data is to be truly useful, a comprehensive assessment system needs to be in place. It begins with grade level benchmark, or screening, assessments given to all students. Studying this data will provide useful insights into where students are at and assist in making a plan going forward. Mid-year and end-of-year testing are pivotal points where new data can provide more information on the effectiveness of instruction. As additional data is collected, year over year comparisons are also useful.

Other assessments are also needed on a more frequent basis. These are often labeled as progress monitoring, or measurements to ensure that instruction is being effective. Progress monitoring should be a short assessment administered every two to four weeks. After three to five data points are graphed and a target line is established, it is easy to monitor whether or not students are on target to achieve learning goals. If students are on target, keep going. If not, change is needed.

Another important, but rarely used, assessment tool is a diagnostic assessment. It is vitally important for teachers to understand exactly what problems exist that prevent a student from achieving grade-level performance. Common benchmark assessments do not provide the detail needed to make this determination. For reading, a quick diagnostic is the CORE Phonics Screener. Another is the Quick Phonics Screener. Both are widely available and easy to administer and interpret. A more detailed and long-established diagnostic is Gray’s Oral Reading Test (GORT). Properly utilizing this assessment tool requires training someone in its use.

Comprehensive mathematics diagnostic tests are harder to find, but several groups are working on improvements in this area. Education Northwest has Assessing Mathematical Understanding for students in primary grades. has free online assessments for students from ages 10-13 that assess whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and the metric system. Math placement tests are also widely available and can provide useful diagnostic information for teachers.

All of these assessment tools are important instruments for truly understanding student performance and student needs. Using them routinely and effectively means studying results and intentionally changing instruction to assist student learning. It is not just about what teachers teach, but what students learn, that makes a difference. Using data is incredibly useful in this regard, if it results in revisions to instruction that are put in place and measured for effectiveness. Make sure this last step is taking place in classrooms in your district.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.