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Make the most of student data

By Jenny Rankin
July 31, 2014
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When you hear the term data, you might not get very excited. Data has a reputation for being dry, boring and difficult to deal with. All this changes, however, when you consider data's capabilities.

The truth is, of all the amazing technological advancements in recent decades, the ability to quickly capture, analyze and apply data on student learning and progress has the potential to facilitate some of the biggest improvements to our educational system we've seen yet. We've had access to basic student data through standardized testing for a long time, but only in the past decade have complex data systems become affordable and accessible enough for administrators and teachers to use them to track real-time student data. These systems can help us differentiate and personalize instruction, use formative assessments effectively and optimize districtwide tech initiatives — in short, they can revolutionize education.

This isn't hype. Research backs up data's crucial role in maximizing student success. It has been shown to improve:

Academics. Educator feedback has indicated that the right kind of data can improve instruction greatly, predict future student performance with high probability and help assign appropriate interventions.

Attendance and behavior. A 2014 review of data use at Florida's Miami Carol City Senior High showed that when educators used dropout risk data, 33 percent of students with attendance problems got back on track to graduate, and 66 percent of those exhibiting behavioral problems changed for the better.

Graduation rates. According to a 2013 study, when students at Purdue University took at least two courses that used the university's data-mining and analysis software, which provides both teachers and students with data-informed feedback on risk of poor student performance, graduate rates were 21.5 percent higher.

Yet student data is only as effective as the user's ability to interpret it. Educators often fail to use computerized data systems to their full potential. Why? They report that the data available to them is often unsatisfactory or arrives too late, that they have a hard time locating the data they need, that they are unfamiliar with the data and how to use it, and that their systems are difficult to use.

They need help, and it is leadership's job to provide it. Here are five things administrators should give to their staff to ensure they are able to use student data in ways that will make a real difference in learning.

1. Two-pronged professional learning
For staff to make the most of student data, they need to be proficient in two areas: data use and data system use. Yet traditional training models — those one-off workshops known as " "drive-by" " PD — that are rampant in school districts have little effect on educator practice and virtually zero impact on student achievement.

For professional learning related to student data use to really be effective, it needs to be:

Two-pronged. Data proficiency is different than technical proficiency, and staff need support with both.

Differentiated. Survey your staff quarterly so you can customize ongoing professional learning to their needs. For example, staff members who have already mastered how to generate prebuilt reports in a data system don't need to attend a workshop on that topic. Instead, they could learn to build custom reports with a mentor teacher or tackle another topic that will push their data-informed efforts.

Reflective of staff input. When developing a professional learning plan, be sure to involve teachers and other stakeholders in the process from the beginning.

Integrated. Professional learning needs to align with the school/district mission, other instructional efforts, the assessment schedule, leaders' expectations and follow-up, and ongoing professional dialogue.

Ongoing. You can establish professional learning communities within your school or district to support ongoing PD, but don't assume that's enough. Administrators should also meet regularly with grade/department chairs to be sure that upcoming meetings maximize time and that everyone's professional learning needs are met. You should also promote other models among staff, like developing their own personal and professional learning networks.

Readily available. You know educators don't have a lot of time to learn new things. When you make professional learning easy on your staff, you increase its effectiveness. Read the next section for some ways to provide just-in-time professional learning and other supports that really work.

2. Support embedded within the data system
When staff uses data systems and data, support needs to be easily and immediately accessible. Onsite data coaches can certainly help. However, 59 percent of teachers report using their data systems on their own time, and many educators are embarrassed to ask for help. Make it easy on them by embedding professional learning within the data system itself.

For example, the data system can feature a Help button that leads to an online library of tutorials relating to how to use the system. And, because most teachers struggle with analyzing the data they receive, you should also include data analysis lessons that can serve as a virtual data coach.

Finally, each data report the system generates should have a reference sheet that helps staff understand the report and its data. To make this report as simple and straightforward as possible, include:

  • Report title, description and image
  • Purpose or key questions the report will help answer
  • Focus, including the intended audience, the type of data reported and the format in which the data is reported
  • Warnings about the most common data analysis errors for this particular report so educators can avoid them

Think all this is overkill? Think again. It really works. In a quantitative study involving 211 educators of varied roles, backgrounds and school districts, I measured educators' data analyses to be 205 percent more accurate when this type of reference sheet was present and 300 percent more accurate when respondents specifically indicated having used the reference sheet (which happened 50 percent of the time).

I also tested the effectiveness of reference guides , which are like the reference sheets, except they contain additional pages to walk the educator through how to use the report to answer each key question the report addresses. When a reference guide was present, educators' data analyses were 273 percent more accurate, and when they indicated they had used the guide (which happened 52 percent of the time), their analyses were 436 percent more accurate.

If your data system is missing a help system with technical and data lessons, reference sheets, and/or reference guides, you may want to contact your data system provider to ask for their inclusion rather than implementing them yourself, as this is a time-consuming task. Anyone can use the free templates I used in my study.

3. Data presented in the best format
According to Thomas Kane, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty director for the Center for Education Policy Research, staff's data analysis problems often relate to cases when data is not organized in a way that answers educators' questions. Data systems and reports must display the data so that educators can use it quickly, easily and accurately.
A few ways to accomplish this include:

Choosing appropriate graphing conventions. Data reports should feature graphs, tables and/or other formats most appropriate for the data being displayed. For example, line graphs imply progress over time, so you shouldn't use them to track scores for a single test. Graphs should also conform to research-based best practices. For example, keep in mind that:

  • Three-dimensional graphs can contribute to misunderstanding of graphed values
  • Bar graphs usually allow users to compare values more accurately than pie charts do
  • Don't use keys or legends if labels can appear directly on the graph
  • Altering a scale — such as beginning an axis somewhere other than 0 or cutting some values off — distorts users' understanding of values.

Emphasizing the most pertinent implications. Displays should also encourage appropriate interpretation. For example, a bar graph implies that values can be compared, so you shouldn't use this format if such comparisons are not appropriate for the particular display — such as comparing tests that differ in difficulty. Displays should also make key implications jump out at the viewer. It should be easy to spot potential strengths and weaknesses.

Avoiding errors that undermine a report's credibility. Data reports can fall victim to spelling or grammatical mistakes, cut-off text, unintended formatting discrepancies, incorrect data (" "120 percent of students are proficient" ") or other errors. When an educator sees mistakes like this on a data report, she can't trust that the rest of the data is not equally flawed. This causes distrust in the data system and setbacks in data use.

If you suspect the data reports available to you and your staff are underperforming, contact your data system provider and urge it to follow these student data reporting standards, which are a synthesis of over 300 studies and other expert sources about the best way for data to be reported to educators. These standards also concern data quality, the embedded supports discussed in section 2 above and other best practices for data reporting.

Much like over-the-counter medicines, student data should carry easy-to-understand labeling and guidance to help people use it properly.

4. Productive culture
If you really want your staff to make the best use of data, you need to present it under the best conditions. Educators need strong leaders who promote a culture where:

Data collection is timely and purposeful. Assessments should be tightly aligned with what is taught and when it's taught. Assessments and other data sources should be of a quality teachers can respect. Also, data should be accessible in the data system in time for educators to make effective use of it.

Teachers feel " "safe" " collecting and discussing data. Teachers should feel respected as professionals as they learn how to interpret and use data effectively, and data should only be used to offer support and not to embarrass or penalize. For example, leaders should keep in mind that many hard-to-isolate variables impact student learning, so value-added measures are not an exact or reliable reflection of teacher performance.

Students and parents are kept in the loop. These crucial stakeholders should receive regular data reports designed specifically for them as well, and they need to be supported in understanding the data. To have the biggest impact, parents and students should clearly understand what they can do when data indicates a struggle in certain areas.

5. Built-in time for data analysis and use
Only 23 percent of teachers have time during the regular workday for viewing student data. This isn't enough. If you want your staff to use data, you have to build the time into their schedule to do so.

The more you build in supports, such as those mentioned above, to make data easy for staff to use, the farther this built-in data time will go. And the more you align data use with other educational endeavors, such as weekly professional learning community discussions, the easier it will be for them to find the time.

Optimizing your student data is an iterative process. As you implement these five ways to make student data work for your staff, each should make the others easier and more effective. And as your staff members practice using your data system to its full potential, they will gain motivation from the differences they see in their students' learning.

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., is a former award-winning teacher, school administrator, school district administrator, and chief education and research officer of a student data systems company. She oversaw supporting educators' data use in all of her administrator/executive roles, and her Ph.D. in education features a specialization in school improvement leadership.