The deal with data

January 31, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

It’s one of the acronyms tossed about in education: DDI, or data-driven instruction.

At the heart of DDI is, obviously, data. In the eyes of some, data – or its collection – is seen as invasive. But the word data means, simply, information. And for school districts, data can provide a wealth of information to improve instruction and individualize education.

Schools collect all sorts of basic education data, such as enrollment, class size, graduation rates, state assessment results and regents exam scores. They also gather information on students’ attendance and behavior, students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), students with disabilities and what teacher(s) a student has. Then, there’s demographic information and data on the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch.

It’s not just student information that districts collect. The Basic Educational Data System (BEDS) tracks information on teachers: their years of experience, professional certification and classes they are teaching.

Some of this data collection is required by the state, both for accountability purposes (for example, ensuring that a high school math teacher is, in fact, certified to teach high school math), as well as to determine a district’s eligibility for state aid and grants.

Student data – or rather, the storage of it – has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent months amid parents’ concerns about the privacy of student information. The state’s plan to store data in the cloud of educational non-profit inBloom raised the ire of parents worried about the security of the information as well as the possibility that inBloom would sell it to third parties.

For now, New York state will hold off uploading data to inBloom – at least until April. While State Ed says the delay is due to technical difficulties, opposition groups say political pressure is paying off. (You can read more about the inBloom controversy here.)

Controversy aside, data is a fascinating piece of the educational puzzle, particularly as it relates to how it can benefit our children.

Targeted instruction

Data from state assessment tests gives districts an analysis of skills by grade level and content areas. With that information, educators can determine areas in which students are strong and areas in which they are not.

“We can look at trends in grade levels, and, for example, say, ‘OK, at this grade level, our students are doing well on main idea and summarizing. But in the grade level below, it’s not really a strength,'” said Lisa Cutting, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Mohonasen Central School District. “We can look at our curriculum in those grade levels and across grade levels, and ask, ‘Are we being consistent in what we’re teaching?’ It helps us check what we’re doing.”

Data can also be used to determine areas in which teachers might benefit from professional development. Some districts have established professional learning communities to enable teachers to support each other.

“Once you have the data, it’s important to know what to do with it,” said Michele Downing, director of data and personnel at Greater Amsterdam School District. “Through professional learning communities, our teachers can talk to each other about the data, trends they see, about what’s working and what’s not.”

Queensbury Union Free School District established professional learning communities four years ago. Deputy Superintendent Theresa Middleton said it can take time for teachers to feel comfortable about sharing their own student data with colleagues.

“There has to be a certain culture among teachers that they’re willing to share ideas and put their egos aside,” said Middleton. “We’ve worked up to that. The professional learning community is a great way to do something with the data you have from the district and from the state. Teachers can use the data to adjust instruction to make sure they’re addressing students’ needs.”

For example, she said, a teacher whose students are struggling in a content area might get new ideas about how to teach it from an educator whose students are having more success.

Personalizing instruction

A variety of programs are available that help evaluate student performance. At the elementary level in Mohonasen, teachers use Successmaker, a computer-based program that supports instruction in math and English Language Arts.

“Students work individually, at their own pace,” said Cutting. “The questions get harder if a student is getting answers right, and it eases up if they’re not. Teachers can print a report to see how the student performed.”

That data can help a teacher target areas in which individual students might need more support.

Fountas & Pinnell is a system used to evaluate students’ reading levels, and Mohonasen’s elementary school teachers use the data they derive from that system to form reading groups within the classroom.

“Teachers are able to create smaller reading groups targeting individual student levels. Some students will progress more quickly, and there is more variety of materials,” said Cutting. “That data can help a teacher individualize more and get to a student’s own needs. As a parent, you might think, ‘Oh, they teach to the middle.’ This type of data helps you teach to all ranges on the spectrum of ability levels.”

If a child is struggling in a subject area, teachers can use data to help isolate the cause.

“We can now take data to see how students did on a particular assessment. We can do an item analysis and see where students struggled and where they did well,” said Downing.

Of course, said Downing, having the data is just the first step. “Once they see where a child is struggling, it’s up to the educator to figure out, ‘What am I going to do to help that child?’ The end goal is to be able to be individualized and to be able to address a situation sooner,” she said.

“The overall message is that it’s not just, ‘here’s the grade you get on a test.’ What’s available now in a more user-friendly format, schools are using on a more regular basis in the classroom to address student needs and provide more individualized instruction,” said Cutting.

Staying on track

Data can also help the district ensure that every child learns.

“Data can help us get a better picture faster of what a child’s needs might be,” said Downing. “Teachers can look at state assessments, they can make their own assessments based on their experience and knowing their students. They can look at discipline records and attendance records, or any information that they think might have something to do with the way a student is performing or behaving.”

Middleton agreed.

“You can get a child’s assessment score, but that’s not really going to tell you a lot about the child,” said Middleton. “The data affirms what your gut is telling you. It helps you to really see specifically where students are. It can help teachers to differentiate instruction, to be more proactive than reactive in planning. If a high school student is having trouble with reading comprehension, for example, part of it might be that they need more scaffolding in reading.”

The ultimate goal, Downing said, is to catch students before they fall.

“Research shows that a student struggling on an ELA assessment, who also has attendance and behavior issues, has a higher chance of dropping out,” Downing said. “We can use this data earlier in a school career to identify at-risk students. It’s like having a net at a higher level instead of waiting for the last bit of the fall.”


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