• Don’t use data to punish (administrators, teachers, students, schools).
  • Don’t use data to blame students or their circumstances.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions without ample data.
  • Don’t use data as an excuse for quick fixes. Focus on improving instruction!

Chart #1

In the world of education, we experience shared rhetoric. One emerging family of education talk includes competency-based education, mastery learning, student-centered learning, personalized learning, performance assessment and data-informed decision-making. These related concepts trade on the belief that students and their needs should be the nucleus of teaching and learning. There is little doubt that student-centered teaching and learning is accepted as desirable and necessary. In fact, individualized learning and differentiation have been part of our education reform discussions for decades. What excellent teacher wouldn’t tell us that it is all about the students? Yet, what does it take to achieve an effective system-wide culture of true student-centered learning? Speaking from long experience with using data to enact meaningful change, any successful effort of this type hinges on two important words: evidence and leadership.

Data, Evidence and The Numbers-to-People Imperative

There are people who react negatively to the word “data” — and admittedly, in the abstract, numbers can seem cold, calculating, and sometimes lead to decisions that are punitive and unproductive. Yet data can serve as the gateway to knowing what students do and do not understand, what to do, and determining if what we do is working. Stakeholders can embrace, and even welcome data, if important safety regulations are accepted to guide data use. The purpose of data is always to inform improvement, never to punish.

Additionally, if education data are broadly defined — beyond standardized and other summative tests — to include multiple measures of day-to-day assessments such as observations, performance tasks, and iterative formative classroom assessments, then we begin to move from numbers to the people represented in those numbers, especially if demographic data are part of the mix. That is when it really becomes “all about the students.” By triangulating the findings of these multiple measures, we start to focus on evidence to guide instruction and evaluate the impact of classroom strategies and programs. All instructional and program decisions are bolstered by knowing a hierarchy of information:

  • What evidence reveals student mastery or specific student misunderstandings?
  • What evidence indicates a shared professional understanding of student misunderstandings, their causes and promising solutions?
  • What evidence confirms implementation of identified solutions?
  • What evidence demonstrates overall impact of the solutions?

With the rise of a competency-based education model, the importance of building an evidence-focused culture heightens, since competency-based learning by definition supports these basics:

  1. Students advancing upon mastery, not age.
  2. The pathway to competency is built with explicit and measurable learning objectives.
  3. Assessment is primarily formative, and skills or concepts are assessed in multiple contexts to guarantee both deep understanding and application.

(Early Learning Foundation: https://earlylearningfoundation.com/competency-based-learning/ Retrieved: 2.26.2016)

In harmony with this thinking, CCSSO adds, “Planning for personalized learning calls for a data-driven framework to set goals, assess progress, and ensure students receive the academic and developmental support they need.”

(When Success Is the Only Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning, iNACOL 2010, p. 6.)

Uncovering and understanding evidence is a must. Yet, adopting processes for effective data analysis based on collaborative inquiry often remains elusive to operationalize across entire organizations. An informed leader is key.

The Role of Leadership

If evidence is everybody’s business, then leaders must understand and provide the supports needed to build a culture of data literacy in their districts, schools, and classrooms in order to perfect meaningful use of evidence. Fortunately, research provides leaders a short list of overarching practices that can lead to the development of high performing institutions that effectively serve their constituents—students, teachers, and communities.

The Institute of Education Sciences offers five recommendations for using student achievement data to support instructional decision-making:

  1. Establish a clear vision for school wide data use.
  2. Develop and maintain a district wide data system.
  3. Make data part of an ongoing cycle of instructional improvement.
  4. Provide supports that foster a data-driven culture within the school, including time for teams to meet to analyze data and develop plans.
  5. Teach students to examine their own data and set learning goals.

These recommendations are not effective, or even possible, on a one-teacher, one-classroom basis, which is why informed and insightful leadership is so essential. However, it’s one thing to know the conditions for success and another to understand steps toward achieving them. The leaders we work with have found it helpful to consider three keys to leadership that drive using data for meaningful change:

  • Expectation
  • Support
  • Involvement

To succeed, a leader must first set clear expectations that data will inform all decisions from the program level to strategies for individual student mastery. The leader must provide supports that include sufficient time for collaborative inquiry, as well as professional development that ensures all stakeholders understand and use common processes for data analysis, data triangulation and interpretation that leads to instructional decisions. And the leader must be well versed in the same processes the teachers are expected to use in order to be actively involved with monitoring progress, providing assistance in high challenge circumstances and celebrating accomplishments.

Chart two outlines considerations under each key heading that, when addressed, can lead to developing a successful evidence-based culture that supports continuous improvement.

Assessing Learning vs. Assessing FOR Learning

Leaders often find themselves confronted with the challenge to show improvement on standardized tests — the instruments that “assess learning.” Teachers feel similar pressure, especially in states where employment rests on test results. Standardized tests and other periodic summative assessments can be useful in certain instances. They help gauge program impact, can illuminate persistent trends, and inform discussions about curriculum/assessment alignment and shared understanding about what represents mastery. However, it remains the data-literate leader’s role to create a bridge from these assessments — triangulating the data they offer with day-to-day formative assessments that can guide instruction and help teachers judge learning mastery. We believe that when emphasis on assessment FOR learning is actively and systematically advocated and supported in a school or district, then positive test results can follow.

In systems where leaders emphasize the routine use of formative classroom assessments to guide and differentiate instruction, there is a dynamic shift in how teachers feel about the importance and value of data as it relates to their own teaching. They feel empowered if provided with the tools to systematically collect evidence, the time to collaboratively share challenges and solutions, and the trust to assess impact and change practice. Evidence lies at the heart of the shift toward true learner-centered practice, and bringing an evidence-focused culture to scale across all classrooms hinges on leadership.

New Hampshire was the first state to pilot a move from the Carnegie Unit — promotion based on 120 hours of class or contact time — to competency-based learning. Carolyn Eastman, former assistant superintendent of schools in Oyster River, New Hampshire briefly shared an insight about how important it is for leaders to provide data analysis and interpretation guidance for an initiative like this to succeed. She highlights the need for a leader to help teachers peel back the layers under test numbers to reveal evidence of competency and mastery.

In her district, achievement is typically higher than other districts in the state. As a result, during a collaborative work session, teachers scanned results of their new Smarter Balanced standardized tests. They felt satisfied, considering it was a new test, and that they were still outperforming other districts. As an accomplished data-literacy leader, Eastman pressed teachers to look beyond the numbers to examine learning “targets.” Smarter balanced materials provide charts that articulate targets — performance statements under each broad “claim” or strand. These targets can guide the collection of evidence to confirm student proficiency or need, which can then inform instruction.

In taking time to examine the targets, teachers realized that although they had unpacked the Common Core State Standards and taught the required topics, the new standards demanded a much deeper level of learning. Assessments consistently challenge students to explain, model and apply knowledge. This led to questions such as, “What evidence would we see for students to demonstrate mastery?” Focusing on evidence prompted further discussions about lesson planning, learning progressions, tiered levels of support, and new instructional strategies to move individual students from where they are to where they need to be.


Implementing change that focuses on individual teacher and student needs to achieve improved results requires first building a sound foundation that elicits trust and buy-in among stakeholders. It takes informed leaders who provide the supports to ensure know-how for success. Before a state, district, or school can successfully implement student-centered initiatives, important questions must be addressed:

  • Do we have a shared understanding about what it means to be student centered and data informed, and how does one relate to the other?
  • How will we know we are implementing successfully?
  • Once implemented, how will we gauge impact?

If you feel ready to lead toward competency-based learning in tandem with data literacy beyond standardized tests, begin to collect some evidence. How does your organization stack up against the five recommendations for using student achievement data to support instructional decision-making? The evidence will guide your next steps.

Mary Anne Mather is a Senior Facilitator and Developer for Using Data. Diana Nunnaley is Director of Using Data Solutions. Using Data Solutions was formerly TERC’s Using Data Project, developed with funding from the National Science Foundation. To learn more about the Using Data Process, professional development offerings, resources, and results, visit https://www.usingdatasolutions.org

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