6 ways to use data with more focus and purpose

We’ve all seen some of those marketing-worthy gems posted on a school website or back-to-school banner after a survey is sent to families: “90% of our parents strongly agree/agree that their children enjoy coming to school!” “92% of parents strongly agree/agree that they have at least one staff member they feel comfortable contacting if they have an idea or concern!”

As wonderful as these data points may be, simply sharing them doesn’t do much to provide insight into comprehensive school improvement. Stats like these are just stats, meaningless without more context, and they fall short of becoming a sustaining pillar of a school’s improvement efforts if we don’t dig deeper with focus and purpose.

The drive to use data

In Chapter 1 of Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Data-Driven Decision Making, Ellen Mandinach and Sharnell Jackson outline how and why our schools have become so data driven. With the development of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)) as the research branch of the Department of Education, they explain, educators got the message that, “it was time for the field to increase its rigor and become an evidence-based discipline.” This quest for increased rigor in the educational research community eventually made its way into districts, schools, and classrooms in what ultimately became accountability and compliance measures. Since then, Mandinach and Jackson go on to say, “a fundamental philosophical shift has occurred from data for compliance to the principles of data for continuous improvement.” They quote Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education: “Our best teachers today are using real time data in ways that would have been unimaginable just five years ago.”

Fatigue and confusion can lead to random acts that seem based on data—but aren’t really—instead of the focused and purposeful approaches more likely to result in sustained school improvement efforts.

The truth is, teachers have always worked to know their students, regardless of federal, state, or local mandates. Through their observations, assessments, and questioning, they develop an awareness of where each student is and enact a learning plan. In the name of continuous improvement and supporting teacher’s needs, districts and schools have begun adopting, adapting, and developing tools for formal and informal assessments. Whether the tools are adopted and purchased by committee, introduced through a curriculum program, or brought on in a new teacher’s or administrator’s toolkit of favorites, this myriad of tools can sometimes lead to testing fatigue and data confusion, despite the best of intentions. This is where the shift to data-driven education can become problematic. Fatigue and confusion can lead to random acts that seem based on data—but aren’t really—instead of the focused and purposeful approaches more likely to result in sustained school improvement efforts.

How to use data differently

Traditionally, it is academic data that provides the keystone for school improvement plans, but many of these plans, due to the limitations of collected data, have little scope and often become stagnant, lack relevance, and fall short of the desired outcomes. To create the conditions for sustained improvement, we need to have a clear picture of the current reality in our schools. This means cleaning up our data practices and looking at our schools holistically. To see the big picture, it’s important to focus on four guiding elements that define how the work we do in schools should look: practices, protocols, processes, and systems. When present, well-articulated, and used consistently, these elements provide the underpinnings to meaningful improvement practices and guard against random data acts that take time and focus away from student learning and continuous improvement. My colleague Richard Jeffrey Rhodes explores this part of the data effort in more depth in his article “Examining school improvement through a holistic lens.”

Here are some suggestions for viewing your own school’s data more holistically and ensuring decisions are made with focus and purpose.

1. Ensure that you are utilizing high-quality assessments

Your assessments should match the rigor and content aligned to your standards. MAP® Growth™, our interim assessment, aligns to state standards, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and AERO. To learn more, read “Not all assessment data is equal: Why validity and reliability matter.”

2. Use a balanced assessment system that informs core instruction as well as intervention needs in your school

See “How to build a balanced assessment system” for insight on pulling together a system that uses formative, interim, and summative assessment effectively.

3. Understand the purpose of each assessment administered, and if needed, eliminate redundancies

Creating a simple matrix listing each assessment you use, its purpose, and how often and why you use it can be very revealing. When you gather and organize this data, you’ll be gaining the impartial viewpoint you need to actively take charge of your programs. You may have to give up your favorite, but the time you’ll regain is priceless.

4. Create an assessment plan

This plan should serve as a practical guide to support your programmatic decisions. When creating it, begin by taking your goals into account. Starting with the end goal in mind—what you ultimately want to accomplish—will help you align your practices, protocols, and programs into a sustainable assessment system within your building.

In your plan, include a schedule that takes into account when the assessment data rendered is most useful to inform instruction, and make sure the data is available with minimal delay. Consider any additional professional learning, program resources, or family outreach you may need to have in place before, during, or after particular assessment cycles. Then, and most importantly, be clear about how you will communicate assessment results in ways that move teaching and learning forward.

5. Commit to collaboratively reviewing data and creating time-bound goals for improvement

As part of your ongoing improvement, it is critical that you not only create the space for collaboration to review and make intentional shifts in your ongoing improvement plans, but also to establish clear next steps. It is of equal or greater importance that you ensure shifts are communicated as actionable and measurable goals that are articulated clearly and with a sense of urgency. Everyone on the team should agree to the work and timelines ahead, and everyone should collaborate to report progress toward goals as often as feasible.

6. Meet regularly to review data and provide support

Though this seems like a simple step to follow, I believe it to be one of the more challenging ones. It requires that we hold this collaborative time as sacred. This means all members of the team are present—physically, mentally, and emotionally—as this work drives the rest of our work. We must commit to this if we expect any other work to become a sustainable part of our system.

Read more

Approaching data-driven decisions with more focus and purpose may feel daunting at first, but it will lead to better decision-making and greater school improvement in the long run. Here are some additional articles that can help you as you begin this work:

To learn more about how we can support you, visit NWEA.org/school-improvement and watch our webinar “Getting supportive schools right: The intersection of place, culture, and growth” on demand.

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