Disentangling Student Data

Simplify the data points examined to pursue continuous improvement.

Topics: Assessment and Evaluation, Equity and Diversity

When was the last time you were presented with information that caused you to change your mind and maybe, more importantly, your behavior? For many of us, finding the answer to that question is difficult, because we’re naturally predisposed to confirmation bias.

Our brains favor information that affirms our preconceived ideas—information that ensures we remain comfortable and information that supports our biases. The reason that the question is so hard to answer isn’t necessarily because we’re not open to changing our minds, but rather because we’re so infrequently put in situations that allow us to do so.

The same is true when we think about what we’re currently doing in the schools we lead. The seven most damaging words in any organization continue to be “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Those seven words are a threat to continuous improvement. If we want to change the results we’re getting, we must change the behaviors we demonstrate.

The Four-Letter Word

For the past 20-plus years, data has become a dreaded four-letter word. It’s the language people use to communicate inadequacy. We also often tend to talk about data in such a sophisticated manner that it becomes confusing or incomprehensible for many of the people who need to use it.

First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what data is. In the most basic sense, data is the information we know about students, whether quantitative or qualitative. It is the test results and the anecdotal information we get when we walk around the classroom. It’s the information we get from individual conversations with students and the overall results we get from standardized testing. Data isn’t necessarily complicated; it’s just information. And you don’t have to be a statistician to become a data-literate and data-informed educator.

I believe that there are a few easy but key steps for principals and administrators to take if they truly want their schools and their staffs to become data-informed. Data alone is not the answer, but data provides us with a better and more focused way to move forward.

Keep It Simple

If you want to foster an environment that uses data to inform instruction, you first have to simplify the process of data collection and analysis and limit the number of data points that matter. Every day, our teachers are bombarded with thousands of data points from their students. It is our job and our responsibility as leaders to make sure that we highlight those that matter most. To be clear, this can’t be everything, nor can it even be an extensive list. When everything is important, nothing is important.

In all the buildings and departments I’ve worked with, I’ve never found a magic bullet. There is no individual data point that is always the “right” one. The right one is the one you choose and commit to focus on, reflect on, and use to change your behavior and practices. That’s where the magic happens: When a teacher, team, or building commits to focus on one or two data points and commit to change their behaviors as a result of what they see, every other metric almost always improves as a result.

I worked with a team that chose to focus on the results they were seeing from a nationally standardized progress monitoring assessment. They homed in on their percentile rank (PR) and leveraged that single data point to drive school improvement, reflection, and practices. Their goal was simple enough for even a kindergarten student to understand: “I want my PR to go up or be above the 50th percentile.”

With this in mind, teachers were able look at the data and identify areas in which they needed to dig deeper into their instructional strategies and practices and the standards they observed. Instead of looking at everything and then trying to make sense of it all, they looked at one thing and then expanded their focus to develop understanding and take action.

Data becomes actionable only when we know what we’re looking at and what we’re going to do with it. Keeping it simple allows teachers and students to find focus and develop an improved understanding of how to plan for action.

Ask yourself the following to narrow your focus:

  • Do you know what data you’re currently looking at? Do your teachers know what data they should be looking at?
  • When was the last time you evaluated whether or not the data you tracked helped you meet your goals?
  • Teachers should know the goals we have for our school and students. Do they? And do you believe that students deserve to know these goals as well?

Changing Behaviors

A friend of mine completed an Ironman race a few years ago. He trained and trained, and he was ready when the day came. On the swimming segment of the competition, however, his wetsuit started to fill with water, and he had to stop and take it off. Once he did this, he was exhausted and just floated for a few minutes to catch his breath.

Then he got on his bike; he got about halfway through that segment and was wiped out again. He found a tree, got off the bike, lay down, and took a quick nap. In the end, he still finished the race well within the time required. But he changed his behavior as a result of the information his body was providing him.

The goal of looking at data should be to change adult behavior similarly. If we’re not willing to change behavior in response to the data we get from students, we might as well bury our heads in the sand and try a random strategy. In practice, it’s a difficult tightrope to walk. If we slow down or change how we educate students, will we create gaps that increase over the years? If we don’t slow down and get through everything without considering student performance, do we risk only providing a superficial level of knowledge?

This is where the Ironman analogy comes in handy. Each year, we’re tasked with ensuring that our students are provided with the opportunity to finish an Ironman race (or meet various benchmarks). But we still have to make sure that we’re responsive to their learning needs and allow them to take time to float on the water or lie down by a tree when they need to do so. We must be responsive, but we also must get to the finish line in time. If not, we run the risk of creating larger and larger gaps in student learning.

Your data strategy must consider teacher and student readiness, as well as define the terms of the race. Before you set it in motion, ask yourself:

  • When was the last time you were presented with data that caused you to change your behavior? If you’re struggling to answer this, your staff might be struggling to understand why they need to change theirs.
  • If you change your behavior in response to everything, how will you know what’s working? Do you know what the trigger for initial investigation and action should be? That’s the data point that should be of greatest focus.

Never Lose Sight of the Kids

In the end, the data utilized should always draw us back to our understanding of the kids. While many schools look similar, each has a unique and diverse group of students and needs. This means that no “boxed” curriculum, cut-and-paste plan, or universal approach will work for everyone, every time. We must leverage what we learn about the students to truly support them in becoming the best version of themselves.

When we think about data, we must broaden our scope even as we limit our focus. Academic achievement is only one piece of the puzzle; other data points might provide the focus for future improvement initiatives. Ask yourself:

  • What kinds of data are we getting about social-emotional learning?
  • What kinds of data are we getting on equity initiatives?
  • What other indicators can help us assess the needs of our students, school, and community?

Every one of these inputs can contribute to an environment that provides students with the best possible opportunity for learning and growing.

I remind every staff member that our job isn’t to “fix” students. Our job is to provide the greatest opportunity for them to become the greatest version of themselves. If that’s our goal, we should grasp every opportunity to gain information—data—about their academic, social, emotional, and overall development. The principal’s job is one of support; we are tasked with creating the conditions needed to get the best results.

When we can internalize that, we become more open to what the data tells us and less tied to what we’ve always done. We get more comfortable adjusting what we’re doing to help our students become who they deserve to be. Data might be a four-letter word, but when used correctly, it’s one of the best ones we have.

Joe Mullikin is principal of Highland Elementary School in Stillman Valley, Illinois. He is director of data and assessment, director of continuous improvement, and crisis management coordinator for Meridian School District.