Classroom Data: A Deep and Complex Subject

04/23/2015  |  By Harvey Hughes

Data in the classroom focused on student achievement is a very complex issue for education making it impossible to discuss all the issues, usage and purposes in one discussion. A primary issue is that data and its purpose has been a moving target, as education reform movements have changed from a model focused on compliance to a model focused on accountability.

In the past, student achievement data consisted mainly of a collection of historic data points such as grades, periodic progress notes and summary of assessment results. To some degree, the best educators could do was to teach the grade level lesson plan to the entire class and intervene when an exception was noticed. While this method was the best we could expect, now times have changed. We have better technology, better analytics and a better model.

The model of accountability says we should focus on individual student outcomes more than the processes, to identify categories of struggling learners. The challenge with the accountability model is that we have to collect progress artifacts of data, publish the results, analyze the data, compare against expectations or norms, and then act upon the data analytics by prescribing educational interventions focused on best practices. Additionally, the challenge of performing this process for individual learners, not just categories of struggling learners, has added another layer of complexity.

Ultimate Purpose of Smart Data Collected in the Classroom:

Early identification of struggling learners with immediate and targeted intervention is the ultimate purpose and challenge of the accountability model of individual student achievement of education. 

Educators must continuously assess and monitor student progress against their Grade Level Expectations (GLE) as part of their classroom instruction. Although this seems like a difficult challenge it is a primary part of the accountability model to ensure that teachers know on a daily basis where their students compare to the state or common standards of GLE, thus giving them some indication of student mastery or struggle.

This early and continuous monitoring and measuring data is critical to aligning instruction to student achievement. Continuously measuring student performance toward their grade level expectation is the only way we will really know who is proficient and who is struggling. Unfortunately this is a very daunting task and virtually impossible without the help of proper technology in the classroom, support from the building administration and from the district wide culture to encourage relevant data collection at the classroom level.


The challenge of implementing strategies, technology and methodologies such as universal screeners for early identification of struggling learners, individual student assessments to uniquely understand missing skills or learning disabilities, building individualized learning plans with measurable goals and objectives, implementing strategies and interventions aligned to these achievement goals and objectives, then finally monitoring and measuring progress with analytic metrics to help recommendations toward a improvement plan is daunting to say the least, but research and common sense agree that we must monitor student achievement on a daily basis. Some would argue that we are overloaded with data, while some of us will argue that we need smarter data. I call this “Smart Data” — that is looking at signs of struggling learners, called hard and soft indicators. Smart data begs the question of “what indicators are hard indications of struggling learners such as attendance, discipline and course grades?” and “what soft indicators such as social/emotional signs and level of classroom engagement and how do they relate to the overall achievement level, and how can they be presented to the teacher in a quick and meaningful way for immediate strategy or intervention aligned to the daily lesson plan?”

Smart data simply means collecting and presenting early warning signs of non-mastery and presenting them to the teacher in a way that dovetails with the lesson plan so all of this is happening seamlessly with the lesson pacing process.

If accountability or smart data processing at the classroom level is so difficult, does the real benefit justify the work?

Does implementing ongoing strategies, methods and technology ensure instruction is aligned to the student’s mastery of the lesson? Research and common sense says yes, but it still doesn’t make it easy. Focusing on the rewards or benefits is the only way to justify the means. It is essential that every single student have our very best support, intervention and attention to detail, thus ensuring they have the best path to individualized student achievement. Beyond the reason for implementing this model for student achievement, a byproduct of implementing individualized student learning plans to support the accountability model, is that a treasure trove of data exists in the artifacts of data that can be electronically and automatically aligned to the individual teacher portfolio. This smart data collected during teacher engagement is precisely the data elements to feed the teacher evaluation process. Teacher evaluation, although extremely important, forces effective teachers to stop teaching long enough to document all the core and extra-curricular engagement activities that make them effective. This seems counter-productive because the smart data system should be doing it automatically for them!


It is one thing to expect the accountability model to be implemented in the classroom where the heart of the instruction happens between the teacher and student, but it is another to support this effort from the district culture by adopting and supporting an early identification and quick intervention model. This model can be taxing on both the budget and patience of a district, but is the best way to support, encourage and motivate our teachers and students to meet the challenge of public education to produce graduates with the purpose of college and career readiness. District leaders from the school board to department heads must encourage, embrace and engage the proactive culture of accountability. This group must fund, empower and authorize the support team made up of principals and department heads. If this is just lip service to motivate the troops this will be very transparent and will have a counterproductive effect thus ultimately producing disengaged and ineffective classrooms.


Support at the district level is basically focusing on the implementation of the goals and objectives of the accountability strategy, which should be aligned to the basic objectives of community, district and state expectations of student achievement. Districts must rethink their educational resources to better support the accountability model. Accountability model means being accountable for results. Results in the classroom include knowledge transfer from teacher to student and data demonstrating and supporting mastery. Districts have to engage in this success formula with a new sense of demonstrated commitment in areas including intuitive technology systems and dynamic curriculum for flexible lesson planning, especially in areas of supplemental content and professional development.


It is clear that the educational transition from accountability to student achievement is directly focused on every student’s achievement and every teacher’s effectiveness. Every student should be provided a clear path to graduation prepared for life, and every teacher should pay an active part in this expectation. Districts must ensure that the classroom is equipped with a technology system that is simple to navigate and easy to use that allows for teachers to write an individualized learning plan with features supporting skill level assessments, and tied to flexible curriculum for on demand lesson planning. With progress monitoring data analytics toward key indicators of success.

A native of Arkansas, Harvey Hughes is the founder of SEAS Education, a pioneering EdTech company dedicated to solving problems in education. Since 1996, SEAS products have helped more than 1,600 school districts in 36 states spend less time processing documents and more time in the classroom improving student performance. For more information, visit
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