A New Practice Guide for Using Data Effectively

October 15, 2010

Richard Halverson

Richard Halverson

Educators face increasing pressure to improve student achievement. To this end, educators and policy-makers use data, such as standardized test scores, to evaluate their practice and to monitor students’ academic progress.

Effective use of data allows educators to

  • Manage instructional time,
  • Provide additional individual instruction for struggling students,
  • Gauge the instructional effectiveness of lessons,
  • Refine instructional methods, and
  • Examine schoolwide data to consider whether and how to adapt a curriculum.

Acquiring data is one thing. Making sense of data is another. It requires theories and interpretive frames of reference. Richard Halverson and colleagues helped produce a guide for the U.S. Department of Education, “Using student achievement data to support instructional decision making.” This practice guide shows how to adapt lessons or assignments in response to students’ needs, how to alter classroom goals or objectives, and how to modify student grouping arrangements. (Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, NCEE 2009-4067).

The guide shows educators how to use common assessment data to improve teaching and learning. Common assessments include annual statewide accountability tests such as those required by NCLB; commercially produced tests administered at multiple points throughout the school year; end-of-course tests administered across schools or districts; and interim tests developed by districts or schools, such as quarterly writing or mathematics prompts.

Among the guide’s recommendations:

1. Make data part of an ongoing cycle of instructional improvement. 
Adopt a systematic process for using data to bring evidence to bear on teachers’ instructional decisions and to better meet students’ learning needs. Using data cyclically to improve instruction includes the following steps: Teachers should collect and prepare data about student learning from a variety of relevant sources. Teachers should next interpret the data and develop hypotheses about factors contributing to students’ performance and the specific actions they can take to meet students’ needs. Teachers then should test these hypotheses by implementing changes to their instructional practice. Finally, they should collect and interpret new student performance data to evaluate their own instructional changes.

2. Show students how to examine their own data and set learning goals. 
This process can motivate elementary and secondary students by mapping out accomplishments that are attainable, revealing achievement gains, and giving students a sense of control over their own outcomes.

3. Establish a clear vision for schoolwide data use.
Schools should establish a strong culture of data use to ensure that data-based decisions are made frequently, consistently, and appropriately. A “data culture” emphasizes collaboration across and within grade levels and subject areas, to diagnose problems and refine educational practices. Planning,  leadership, implementation, and attitude all affect the schools’ success with developing and maintaining a data culture.

4. Foster a data-driven culture. 
School and districts can ensure that teachers, principals, and staff understand their roles in using data. They can invest in leadership, professional development, and structured time for collaboration. They also may need to invest in relevant technologies and specialized staff.

5. Develop and maintain a districtwide data system.
Districts should develop and maintain high quality data systems that enable all decision makers to access data quickly. A high quality data system also links disparate forms of data for analysis and reporting to a range of audiences. Districts and schools need financial and human resources to develop safeguards that ensure data are timely, relevant, and useful to educators.

A word of caution: The panel report does not provide  compelling evidence that these recommendations lead to improved student outcomes. The recommendations do, however, rest on panelists’ experience and research on how teachers and administrators can use data to make instructional decisions that raise student achievement.

What’s a practice guide?

A practice guide lists specific recommendations that are actionable. Those recommendations taken together represent a coherent approach to a complex problem. Health care professionals, for example, use practice guides to assemble and communicate evidence-based advice for practitioners about specific clinical conditions. Each recommendation is explicitly connected to the level of evidence supporting it. Each is represented by a grade (strong, moderate, or low). See “Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making” Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. (NCEE 2009-4067).