How schools use data to improve student achievement

A process-oriented approach to successful data use

11/27/2011  |  JOSH POWE

With new technology taking education by storm, a recent survey of principals in the Southeast shows that data is becoming the most important decision-making factor in schools, not only for accountability, but also for curriculum and instructional uses.

Schools have changed. In the last decade alone, technology innovations have created new ways of teaching and learning, far away from the convention of textbooks and other printed resources. How can you grasp what your students need now, and really evaluate their progress? Data. Nowadays, one cannot undervalue the importance of data.

Since the advent of No Child Left behind, the K-12 educational sector has seen an incredible proliferation of solutions that ostensibly support the data-driven process. Even more recently, with Race to the Top funding, I3 innovations grants, and other federal subsidies, the focus on student assessment and information systems has never been more apparent. Unfortunately, though the use of data is crucial, research suggests that the reality is a far cry from what actually happens in the school environment.

In a recent survey of principals and administrators in the Southeast, 98 percent reported that in the current climate of decreasing school budgets, data-driven instruction was either “very important” or “more important than ever.” However, over 50 percent of principals also reported that there is “not enough” infrastructure to support a healthy and robust data-driven culture. Moreover, the majority of respondents also reported that most of their teachers do not actively use data to drive instructional decisions. These results seem counter-intuitive. If using data is so critical, why is it hard to get the traction required to establish best practices?

Research has long-established the benefits of various types of ongoing assessment to improve student achievement. But much of this work comes from controlled experiments that examine the effects of ongoing assessment practices vs. instructional intervention. No serious educator would debate the transformative potential of ongoing assessment practices in terms of allowing teachers to adapt teaching models to better meet individual student needs. So, the question becomes less about whether the use of data can help accelerate student performance levels and more about how to establish a culture where the use of data is linked to daily instruction — that is, how to make the use of data practical and accessible for all stakeholders in student achievement.

Technology tools to support assessment and analysis are abundant, but many are expensive and not user-friendly. There is little evidence to suggest that many of these tools add value when looking at student outcomes. The problem is that many tools are used without a specific plan in place. Too many districts make the mistake of acquiring assessment technology expecting the product to do all of the work in improving student performance. To some extent, this approach is like signing up for a gym membership after a New Year’s resolution. That would probably be a step in the right direction, but it is only a single step. Selecting the right set of tools will help provide a foundation to build upon, but is clearly not enough — just like buying that gym membership alone is not enough to shed that extra weight from the holidays. 

From this survey it is clear that knowing how to establish a data-driven process is not intuitive for many educators. The gap between belief in the power of using data and the ability to operationalize data-driven practices is a wide one. Professional development around the use of data is lacking, especially when such training is not directly associated with the use of a specific product.

For instance, principal respondents to the survey reported that they did not get “enough support” in the following key training areas from their districts.

  • Training teachers on use of data to change instructional practice (66%)
  • Training teachers on use of data systems to analyze student achievement (60%)
  • Training school staff on the basic functions of data (51%)
  • Training principals or other school administrators on using data to change instructional practices (50%)

In part, the challenge seems to be related to training resources provided, but other factors also come into play. The high-level of administrative turnover in many districts often leads to changes in policies, technology products, or instructional programs. This can foster the impression among both principals and teachers that the latest district policy will be “here one day and gone the next.” The concept of creating sustainable initiatives around the use of data that stand the test of time is a significant challenge. Fundamentally, part of this process means that such initiatives must win the hearts and minds of teachers.

Without a well thought out process, data from ongoing assessments is seldom leveraged to its full potential. In the right hands, data can lead to more customized instructional solutions for individual students and at times, even at a district-level. With the right data, schools can get customized instructional and assessment programs that are directly related to key areas of instructional need identified by student assessments.

These customized projects may take the form of supplemental materials to support intervention or core programs in any subject area. Interestingly, this type of custom publishing is on the rise and these projects are often completed in partnership with districts to address particular instructional or assessment needs that are not well-served by off-shelf-solutions.

There are many ways to initiate new data-driven programs in your district or enhance existing ones; here are some suggestions for Data Do’s and Don’ts.


  • Establish clear and specific goals for all stakeholders.
  • Be sure to provide sufficient and ongoing training, ideally using a data coach or power user model.
  • Assess early and often. Research suggests that districts that assess more frequently have better outcomes.
  • Choose the right software. Make sure it is user-friendly and the cost is sustainable over time.
  • Provide good answers to the “Now What?” question. That is, once data is in the system, what can teachers do with it and how will administrators support them in that process.
  • Develop local capacity at the building level. At least two or three people should receive additional training and become the “data leads” for the school. These individuals should provide the front-line support for other teachers in the school.
  • Have weekly/monthly data meetings to share data across classes.
  • A primary purpose of ongoing assessment is to provide detailed information about what students know so instruction can be tailored to individual or group needs. Be sure to have a plan in place to work with teachers on strategies for differentiation and consider custom publishing options to fill instructional gaps that are district-wide.


  • Don’t expect your assessment data system to do all of the work for you. Only you can create a process and environment to enable the use of data in a sustainable way.
  • Don’t make product or technology selections based on “bells and whistles.” Many of these features add to the cost without providing much value.
  • Don’t expect teachers to instinctively know how to use data effectively to maximize student gains.
  • Don’t expect schools to be able to implement an assessment platform or data solution without some district level support, especially in terms of a customized, ongoing, and locally relevant training regimen that is designed to keep skills sharp.
As co-founder and President of LinkIt! Software, Josh Powe has over 12 years of experience in educational publishing and technology.
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