Data in Schools–Understanding What It Is, How It’s Used, and How We Can Improve

Aug 08, 2018

An Assessment of the Primary Challenges of Using Data in Educational Decision-Making

Discussions of data use in schools often lead to two commonly heard refrains:  

  1. “Educators are drowning in an ocean of data”
  2. “Schools are a data desert”

When a situation is characterized by such polar opposite viewpoints, it is a signal that there are fundamental challenges that must be understood and overcome. In this case, if there are data in schools, why aren’t those data being used effectively (or at all) by teachers to support their instructional decision-making? What are the challenges?

A first set of challenges are the overarching issues that apply broadly to the structure and organization of schools and the structure and organization of data. I classify these as challenges related to Data, Time, and Decisions.

Data: What it is, and How Can We Best Use it in an Educational Context?

Let’s begin with the fundamental question, “What do we mean by data?” Data must certainly include more than the achievement levels, scaled scores, and growth scores derived from state assessments, which are the touchstone of school and teacher accountability. 

What is the role of data from teachers’ ongoing classroom assessment, observations, and interactions? What other data are relevant to answer particular questions: demographic or socio-economic data, historical data or trends over time? Do schools have the data that they need and do they have enough of it?

Time: How Does it Limit Our Use of Data and How Can We Get Around That Challenge?

The first time-related issues are concerned with whether there is enough of it. Is there enough time to collect the necessary data? If so, is there enough time to analyze, interpret, and understand the data and the information produced from it; particularly, time for teachers to work collaboratively with coaches or in professional learning communities? Finally, if we clear those hurdles, is there enough time to make changes based on what we have learned from the data?

The second time-related issue is the timeliness of the data. Is the data that is needed available when it is needed?

Decisions: How Can Data Improve Our Educational Decision-Making Processes?

The call for data-based decision-making implies that there are decisions to be made that would be improved by the use of data. What are those decisions? What decisions must be made? What decisions can be made? What is the process for making those decisions? Who is responsible for making particular decisions; and how much flexibility and autonomy does that person have? 

Equally important is whether there is a process for evaluating decisions that are made or not made. Are there consequences for not making the best decision?

Other Data-Based Educational Challenges that Impact Teachers

In addition to those overarching challenges to data use in the schools, there are challenges more directly related to the classroom teacher. These can be classified these into three areas: Access, Control, and Knowledge.

Access: How Can We Provide Teachers With the Data They Need?

The first challenge is providing teachers with access to the data they need in a format that supports their use of the data; and as stated above, to ensure that the data is accessible when it is needed. Beyond the data itself, there are issues related to access to information and the supports necessary to help teachers interpret and use the data. This information might include interpretive material provided with the data, but it also includes access to relevant research and information on best practices. 

To support teachers’ use of data and information, they must also have opportunities to collaborate with peers and other professionals and access to tools that will help them organize, display, and analyze data effectively and efficiently.

Control: Putting Data Use and Decision-Making Into Teachers’ Hands

Lack of control is a major challenge to data use by teachers. In this era of school accountability, some schools and districts have exerted tremendous control over curriculum and instruction with mandated scope and sequence extending to daily lesson plans. 

Similarly, suites of mandated state, district, and school assessments leave teachers with less control over the data used in decision-making. And when there is the opportunity for a teacher to make the decision to differentiate instruction based on data, what options for differentiation actually exist within the system?

Knowledge: Making Sure Teachers Can Effectively Put Data to Use

When all of the other challenges have been met, perhaps the greatest challenge to data use in the schools is teachers’ knowledge, or what we refer to as curriculum literacy. To make effective data-based decisions, teachers must possess not only the assessment literacy needed to interact with the data, but  must also possess sufficient content and pedagogical knowledge and skills necessary to interpret and use the data effectively to improve instruction.

This need applies particularly to data generated in the classroom during instruction. All paths to more effective data-based decision-making in the schools require teachers who are prepared to use that data to inform and improve their instruction.

The challenges described here are interrelated, and effective system-based attempts to overcome them will account for those interactions. Understanding the layers of challenges and the individual challenges within those layers, however, is a critical step to overcoming the challenges to data use in the schools.

This post summarizes the introductory presentation the Center for Assessment’s Charlie DePascale made at the Lorentz Center Workshop: Data-based Decision-Making in Education: The Data are There. Why Aren’t They Used? Lorentz Center, Leiden University, June 11-14, 2018