Building Your Case with Student Data

Test scores provide only a snapshot of what a student knows.

Data-driven instruction is not a new idea in education. The issue is whether it accurately forecasts what a student needs to learn.

Classroom teachers in schools across the country gather data from various assessments and analyze that information with administrators and curriculum leaders. This practice can lead to a deeper understanding of student achievement, help identify trends of various student subgroups and improve teacher quality.

If educators can agree that data-driven instruction is beneficial, then the next step is to dig deeper into the type of data being gathered and whether it paints an accurate picture of what a student knows.

Overreliance on high-stakes data

Standardized testing at the state level, often referred to as high-stakes testing, is often used as the primary indicator of a school’s or teacher’s effectiveness. Depending on a state’s educational policies, these tests could determine the promotion or even graduation of a student.

It’s not unusual for data-analysis teams to place a great deal of weight on the results from standardized testing. For many schools, standardized test results serve as the primary reference tool for all instructional decision-making. While the data can provide worthwhile information, one form of assessment does not provide an accurate account of a student’s level of mastery.

Can you back up your claim?

A prosecuting attorney would never walk into a courtroom and declare a defendant guilty without providing evidence. When conducting meetings with parents, special services teams, or administrators, a teacher needs to have the facts together and provide evidence to strengthen the case.

Walking into a meeting and stating “This child can’t do math” is neither realistic nor professional. There needs to be supporting data to back up the informal observations teachers make in the classroom each day. In order to see the whole picture of learning, educators must be systematic in their approach to educational assessment.

Diagnostic assessment

The Ontario Ministry of Education provides a simple definition of how diagnostic assessment impacts learning.  “Information from diagnostic assessment helps teachers determine where individual students are in their acquisition of knowledge and skills, so that instruction can be personalized and tailored to provide the appropriate next steps for learning.”

This baseline assessment sets the foundation for learning by letting a teacher know where a child stands academically. Without this information, an educator will either fall under the assumption that all students are academically even or never know the type of growth that has occurred through the school year.

Schools fail in the underutilization or overemphasis of diagnostic testing. These should be used as regular checkups on a student’s overall progress toward mastery rather than a beginning-of-the-year test. Likewise, diagnostic assessment should not be the only indicator in determining the academic ability of a student. This can often result in self-imposed high-stakes testing.

Other forms of assessment

The use of formative and summative assessments in the classroom has proved to be one of the most powerful tools a teacher can have. These assessments, designed and administered by teachers, act as stepping-stones toward mastery for students when used effectively in the classroom.

Educational authors and trainers Stephen and Jan Chappuis state that formative assessment is at its most valuable when it serves as practice for students rather than documented for a grade. Formative assessments can show progression and growth of learning while summative assessments can indicate mastery levels.

Paired successfully with diagnostic assessments, a teacher can validate the effectiveness of their lesson planning as well as provide evidence of student growth or academic need. Essentially, the guesswork is removed from the classroom and from the results of any high-stakes testing.

There is a wide variety of models and methods for assessment in the classroom. Some assessments are mandated by state law or district policy and cannot be removed from the school setting. However, this does not mean that an educator cannot enhance the data gathered through these assessments with additional information gathered through consistent diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.


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