By Susan M. Brookhart
What is “data”? Google’s dictionary says data are (yes, the word is plural!) things known or assumed to be facts, which can be used as the basis for reasoning or calculation. Data don’t have to be numbers, although they often are.
In this blog post, I offer a few practical tips on using data in schools to inform planning and decision making. These tips are just a few things I think are very important—they are by no means everything you need to know or do.
Tip #1. Use large-scale data to raise questions. Large-scale assessments, such as state accountability tests, give the “30,000 foot” view of achievement. They are best used to raise questions because they don’t contain enough detailed information to support specific plans. For example, suppose 35 percent of 5th graders in School X score proficient or above in reading on the state test. School X should not jump to a decision (“Let’s hire a reading specialist.”). Rather, they should ask a question: “How can we improve reading in 5th grade?”
Tip #2. Use examples of student work to make tentative conclusions about possible answers to your questions. When you look at student work, examine not only the results but also the kind of assignments students were given in the first place and what student responses tell you about their understanding. A group of teachers and administrators in School X may find, for example, that most of the 5th grade reading assignments asked students for simple comprehension work and that students were rarely asked to make inferences, draw conclusions, or relate what they read to other texts.
Tip #3. Your “data-based decisions” should really be action plans based on the answers to your questions. Try out your plan, collect some more data, and see where you are. School X now thinks, for example, that the answer to improving reading lies in asking students to think more deeply about what they read in order to develop and extend text-based understanding. So their action plan might be (a) professional development for teachers to help them improve the quality of their assignments and (b) teaching students how to make inferences from texts. Will that action plan be effective? They won’t know until they try and collect some more data—including data about how well the plan was implemented.
Tip #4. The math teacher is your friend. Not everyone in the school or district needs to be interested in statistics. But in every school or district, there is likely at least one person who is—and maybe even more people than you think. Avoid making interpretive mistakes that a math teacher could help you avoid. (I once knew a superintendent who was very upset that one-third of his district’s elementary students were below the 40th percentile on a reading test. In fact, one would expect 40 percent (not 33 percent) of students to be below the 40th percentile. Had he just asked a math teacher, he would have saved himself some grief.) Simply ask someone who likes numbers to be part of any group that needs to interpret them.
If you are doing data-based decision making in your school or district, the best way to use these tips may be as lenses to examine the processes in which you are already engaged. If you’re just starting to think about using data, I hope these tips help you approach the process in a thoughtful manner, examine your assumptions, and avoid jumping to conclusions.
Log onto the ASCD website to explore more resources and make a date with data tonight!
Susan M. Brookhart is an independent education consultant based in Helena, Montana who has taught both elementary and middle school. She is the author of several ASCD books, including How to Make Decisions with Different Kinds of Student Assessment Data, How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, and How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading. She is also the coauthor, with Connie M. Moss, of ASCD’s Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for Instructional Leaders; Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How Principals and Teachers Collaborate to Raise Student Achievement; and Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson.