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How Can Teachers and Schools Use Data Effectively? Brief


Over the past decade, educational policymakers have consistently called for data use. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, with its emphasis on annual progress in students’ achievement scores and quantitative evidence for school decisions, included a mandate for so-called “data-driven decision making.” More recently, the Obama administration designated building data systems that guide instruction as one of the four core requirements of the Race to the Top funding competition. Across the country, schools use data as part of Response to Intervention (RtI). Conversations about data dominate the educational landscape, and these discussions only seem poised to continue.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric surrounding educational data vastly outweighs the research, high-quality assessments, and structural supports that would allow educators to use data well (Hamilton et al., 2009). The result has been widespread misuse of data, particularly in lower-achieving and high-poverty schools. Many schools place a shortsighted focus on improving the achievement of students whose scores lie just below a proficiency “cut score” (Bracey, 2008; Diamond & Cooper, 2007) at the expense of students performing either above or well below proficiency.

Some schools may replace teaching that emphasizes conceptual understanding with test-driven drill (Newcombe et al., 2009; Shepard, 2000) and devote additional instructional time to mathematics and reading at the expense of other subjects (Diamond & Cooper, 2007).They may use single, external test scores from groups of students to evaluate teachers, a dangerous practice (National Research Council, 2001). As the Government Accountability Office (GAO, 2009, p. 17) neatly summarized, the current culture has resulted in “teachers … narrowing the curriculum being taught—sometimes referred to as ‘teaching to the test’—either by spending more classroom time on tested subjects at the expense of other non-tested subjects, restricting the breadth of content covered to focus only on the content covered by the test, or focusing more time on test-taking strategies than on subject content.”

All these abuses risk giving “data” a bad name. However, these problems are the natural result, not of using data, but of the poor responses that inevitably occur in an environment that couples high stakes for data use with limited guidance for how to use data appropriately. This brief seeks to provide some level of guidance for schools and teachers interested in using data to improve students’ mathematics achievement.

Types of Data and Data Uses  

Schools and teachers encounter many types of data in the typical school year. One prominent type is achievement data. In the NCLB age, virtually all schools attend to students’ scores on annual state tests. Many schools also use interim tests of achievement, including interim “benchmark” tests (see Datnow, Park, & Wohlstetter, 2007; Goertz, Olah, & Riggan, 2009) and curriculum-based measurements (see Fuchs, 2004), that they can administer more frequently to monitor students’ progress and screen for difficulties. Other measures, like quarterly grades, schoolwide assessments and performance tasks, and shared, classroom-level activities and assessments, may also serve as sources of interim data. Finally, teachers collect achievement data every day from students’ work, quizzes, and performance during informal tasks.

Other common types of data include demographic and behavioral metrics that monitor students’ background, attendance, social and behavioral issues, mobility, retention, and dropout rates (Learning Points Associates, 2004). Less common types of data are collected on school processes, including financial, program, and human capital data (Hess & Fullerton, 2009); on teaching, including instructional logs, lesson plans, and classroom video; and on various perceptions, including surveys of parents, communities, students, and teachers about school performance and programs (Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Learning Points Associates, 2004).

All these types of data can and should be used together to create rich analyses of students’ learning and school experience in general. These data may be used in several ways.

First, schools may use process data, coupled with other kinds, to evaluate school programs and monitor the effects of expenditures (Hess & Fullerton, 2009). Second, schools may use data instrumentally (Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Murnane, Sharkey, & Boudett, 2005), to make decisions such as where to target resources, how to track students, or how to assign students to RtI tiers (see Gersten et al., 2009; National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010; VanDerHeyden, 2010). Third, teachers may use data in the classroom, to make formative changes in instruction, give feedback to students, and measure progress (see NCTM, 1995, for ways in which teachers use assessments; see Black & Wiliam, 1998a, 1998b, 2009, for more on formative assessment). Finally, schools and teachers may use data for inquiry into trends in students’ achievement. In this instance, schools and teachers ask questions about why trends occur and make plans for changing instruction and school processes to improve students’ learning (see Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Murnane et al., 2005; Supovitz & Klein, 2003).

This list of data uses is not exhaustive; the ways schools use data go by many names, frequently cross boundaries, and are too broad for this brief to explore deeply. Instead, the remainder of this brief focuses on the last use of data introduced above: the schoolwide use of data for inquiry into students’ mathematical learning. The use of data for inquiry is complex (see Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007) and involves school personnel joining together to uncover problems and plan needed interventions. As Supovitz & Klein (2003, p. 33) summarized, “Full-fledged inquiry involves a cyclical process whereby organizations focus on an important problem, devise a strategy to collect data to identify the particular source of the problem, analyze the data, take action based upon what is learned, and collect data to see if the action taken has influenced the identified problem.” Although other types of data use—particularly the formative use of data in the classroom—may become crucial parts of this process, the inquiry process may form a basis for all schoolwide data use. 

Structural Supports for Data Use 

Before teachers and schools can engage in inquiry into data, three primary supports need to be in place.

Support 1: Goals for Mathematical Cognition. Assessment data are only as useful as the content they measure. The crux of a recent National Research Council (2001) report on assessment was the explication of three elements that compose any educational assessment: a model of students’ cognition (i.e., knowledge or understanding) in a domain, tasks that allow observation of that cognition, and guidelines for interpreting those observations. All too often, teachers and schools seek to interpret assessment data without a strong understanding of the students’ cognition being measured.

Using data well requires that schools put cognition first, determining what aspects of cognition are worth assessing and focusing assessment data collection on those aspects. Schools need clearly delineated goals for the mathematical content and processes that students should know at each grade level and across grades (Hamilton et al., 2009; National Research Council, 2001). Ideally, these goals should align with state and national standards (e.g., Common Core State Standards; NCTM, 2000) and with the goals outlined in the textbooks teachers use (see Pellegrino & Goldman, 2008, for an in-depth discussion of textbook assessments).

Standards documents limit some schools and districts too much (Datnow et al., 2007), especially those that wish to innovate with more challenging goals or to provide targeted interventions. Schools may wish to set goals above and beyond the given standards for higher-level mathematical thinking and content. Some schools may even wish to develop higher-level assessments to match these cognitive goals (see Shafer & Romberg, 1999; Shepard, 2000, for examples). Given the importance of early mathematical skills to students’ later success in mathematics, schools may also wish to target more data-based interventions to early number sense and other skills (see Baroody, Bajwa, & Eiland, 2009; Geary, 2010; Geary et al., 2009; Jordan & Levine, 2009, for more on early number sense).

In general, districts that use data for inquiry have shared instructional content linked to standards, external tests, and internal assessments, and they set specific, measurable goals for students, classrooms, schools, and the district based on that content (Datnow et al., 2007). They use data to monitor progress toward those goals, and conversations about data focus on the content being measured, strategies for teaching that content well, and students’ cognition related to that content.

Support 2: Data Teams. Schools may establish teams devoted to setting and reviewing learning goals and to organizing the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data (Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2005; Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Learning Points Associates, 2004; Murnane et al., 2005). Many high-performing districts establish such teams as central to the schools’ improvement process and provide teams with rubrics, protocols, and other tools for making sense of data meaningfully (Datnow et al., 2007; Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007).

At district level, many stakeholders—including parents, curriculum specialists, and community members—can serve on such teams. At school level, teachers can form the core of teams that examine learning goals, students’ progress, and instructional interventions (Hamilton et al., 2009). Through their participation in these teams, teachers can learn more about the content they teach, consider interventions that might improve students’ progress, and support one another in adopting new teaching strategies or school initiatives. Not all the teams must be devoted explicitly to data examination; different teams can be established for different tasks related to data (see Boudett et al., 2005, p. 21, for examples).

Support 3: Strong Leadership. Establishing a culture of using data well requires strong leadership. Leaders can create this culture by dedicating time for teachers to meet about data (Datnow et al., 2007; Hamilton et al., 2009; Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007) and, more important, time and specialist support for implementing data-based interventions with students (Goertz, et al., 2009). Leaders should also recognize that the most crucial data consumers are teachers, whose interpretations of data can greatly affect how data are used to improve instruction (Goertz et al., 2009). If teachers are to draw useful conclusions from data, they will need professional development in pedagogical content knowledge, data analysis, and formative assessment (Datnow et al., 2007; Diamond & Cooper, 2007; Firestone, 2009; Heritage et al., 2009; Wiliam & Thompson, 2008). Leaders can adopt technology-based systems for timely data capture, management, and analysis (National Research Council, 2001; Office of Educational Technology, 2010). Highly sophisticated systems can even suggest ideas for instructional interventions for particular students (see Goertz et al., 2009). Finally, leaders can promote data use by avoiding using achievement data to punish or embarrass teachers or students (Firestone, 2009). Where data become synonymous with blame, teachers will no longer view data as tools for improvement.

Steps in Data Use 

Using data for school-wide inquiry generally begins with annual test data, but should not end there. Standardized test data are quite limited in what information they give about instruction (Black & Wiliam, 1998b; National Research Council, 2001), in that they are usually not timely, they cannot give students immediate feedback, they frequently focus on lower-level skills rather than concepts (Shepard, 2000), and they paint an incomplete portrait of students’ understanding (Supovitz & Klein, 2003). However, teachers and schools can use annual test data as a starting point to inquire into data, if they use other types of data, including that of more fine-grained interim and classroom-level achievement, to confirm and expand analyses.

Several groups of researchers have outlined cycles or systems of data use for the reams of test data schools receive every year (see Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2005; Halverson et al., 2007; Hamilton et al., 2009; Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Learning Points Associates, 2004; Murnane et al., 2005). Each system is unique, but all attend at some level to three broad steps: data collection, data analysis, and intervention. We discuss each of these three major steps in turn.

Step 1: Data Collection. Collecting annual test data may seem simple. Schools usually acquire these data several months after students take the test. However, these data are often presented in a format that precludes analyzing students’ learning and forming possible instructional interventions. For instance, teachers may receive summaries of students who are exceeding, meeting, or below expectations, without attention to numerical scores or growth over the year. These data must be organized in a manner more conducive to analyzing the problems students have with mathematics.

A technology-based system is one way to organize data usefully (National Research Council, 2001; Office of Educational Technology, 2010). Such a system could include numerical scale scores for each student over time, allowing schools to compare a given student’s growth from year to year (see Goertz et al., 2009; Murnane et al., 2005, for examples of well-conceived systems). Internal or external data experts, such as university researchers, can help collect and organize data for teachers to analyze. Other school staff can inventory all the school’s data, including and beyond achievement data, and keep a data “wish list” for teachers and other school staff (Boudett et al., 2005).

Additional achievement data, along with other kinds of data, must be collected to supplement annual test data and support high-quality inquiry (Halverson et al., 2007; Hamilton et al., 2009; Ikemoto & Marsh, 2007; Learning Points Associates, 2004). Examining annual test data along with results from interim (see Goertz et al., 2009) and classroom-level assessments (see NCTM, 1995) permits deeper analysis of students’ progress on specific mathematical skills, especially because classroom-level assessments may allow diagnosis of why students miss particular problems. Other types of data can also enrich the analysis of achievement data. For instance, teachers can collect data on students’ demographics and behavior, schools’ and parents’ perceptions of mathematics teaching and curricula, school expenditures, and attendance at professional development activities. These types of data allow more sophisticated analyses of relationships, such as that between students’ achievement on fraction items and their teachers’ attendance at professional development focusing on fraction instruction.

Step 2: Data Analysis. Some districts hire statistical experts to help them analyze data. Although these experts undoubtedly help, no analysis helps school improvement more than teachers working together to identify and examine patterns in data (Learning Points Associates, 2004). Teachers may tackle schoolwide issues or work in grade-level or grade-band teams on more specific issues. To determine what the issues are, teachers might first examine topics that were deemed schoolwide strengths or weaknesses in previous years, and then look for other patterns. Teachers can also examine the performance of subgroups of students, such as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Lubienski, 2007), and performance on skills that are particularly important for later school performance. Areas of strength overall might be areas of weakness for particular groups of students, and this should be noted. In looking for patterns in topics or subgroups, various types of graphic organizers or “data overviews” may be particularly helpful (see Boudett et al., 2005 for illustrations).

After, or sometimes before, finding and documenting patterns in the data, teachers should ask questions about the data. For instance, a team might notice that, on a schoolwide level, students are missing questions about area. A natural question to ask would be why students perform poorly on these questions. The team would then dig into the data further. They might examine, for instance, whether some students (in certain grades or classrooms) are performing better on these questions than others and whether those high-performing students share any common characteristics.

The team can then begin generating hypotheses to answer the question (Learning Points Associates, 2004). At this point, teachers can put all hypotheses on the table for consideration. The process should, however, encourage teachers to suggest hypotheses that focus on instruction rather than on factors outside their control, such as parental support (see Boudett et al., 2005). For instance, one teacher might suggest that students do not have enough practice on the procedures for finding area. Another teacher might suggest that the textbook does not support understanding the concept of area, and thus students do not know when to apply the learned area formula.

The team can then evaluate each hypothesis by examining other data. For instance, the team might examine the school’s textbook only to find that the text emphasizes concepts heavily, thereby weakening the argument that the text is the source of the problem. Another teacher might hypothesize that teachers do not actually teach area as the textbook suggests, and that they focus instead on having students memorize and practice applying the area formula. Given a lack of data to refute this claim, such as classroom videos or logs, the group might decide to pursue this idea further. Indeed, the team may designate several hypotheses as needing further exploration.

Step 3: Intervention. Building on the list of tentative hypotheses, the team can brainstorm strategies for intervening to improve students’ achievement (Boudett et al., 2005; Learning Points Associates, 2004). They should consider relevant research on successful interventions (e.g., Baker, Gersten, & Lee, 2002; Gersten et al., 2009; Gersten, Jordan, & Flojo, 2005; NMAP, 2008) and how students learn mathematics (see Newcombe et al., 2009). In the example presented above, the team might decide to read research on teaching area concepts, to share specific strategies for teaching these concepts well, and to encourage teachers to use those strategies. The number of strategies should be manageable for teachers. If teachers cannot actually enact the intervention, it will certainly fail. The team might also consider using the data in other ways, such as making an instrumental decision to focus a professional development session on teaching area concepts.

After agreeing on strategies to address a problem, the team should set specific, measurable goals—long-term, medium-term, and short-term—to determine whether the intervention is working (Boudett et al., 2005). For the short term, teachers can set goals for students’ performance on curriculum-embedded assessments and in classroom activities. For the medium term, teachers can resolve to examine interim assessments for progress on items related to area or even construct interim assessments on area concepts to give to all their students. These constructed tests would allow the teachers to diagnose students’ problems with area more thoroughly using a shared assessment. For the long term, teachers can set a goal for students to answer a certain percent of area problems correctly on the next external test. Whatever the goal, the team must articulate a specific problem to address, two to three strategies designed to address it, and detailed indicators of progress toward solving it. The team must also have a plan for collecting further data on the problem (Boudett et al, 2005).

At this point, the team has made an intervention plan for a single problem. The team can document and share this plan with the teachers in the school who will face this problem (Learning Points Associates, 2004), and those teachers may voice opinions on any needed revisions to the plan. Distributing the plan, however, does not ensure its implementation. To implement the plan, teachers can form learning communities (Murnane et al., 2005; Wiliam, 2007/2008) around each problem. These communities can meet to share problems and successes in implementing the plan, to encourage and support adjustments along the way, and to collect data on whether the teachers are implementing the plan appropriately and faithfully. These communities also allow teachers to continue conversations about successful instructional strategies for teaching specific mathematical skills. As much as possible, the plan should involve strategies for formative assessment and intervention on the problem at the classroom level, such as encouraging students to monitor their own progress and to feel a sense of ownership and accountability about their own data (Black & Wiliam, 2009).


Most researchers have framed data use as a cycle for a very important reason: making and implementing a data-based plan is only the beginning. Data teams must begin the cycle anew to see if their interventions are working and to spot new problems. Teams are responsible for making plans to collect data on interventions and making recommendations for other kinds of data that they need to collect for analysis and add to the school’s “data wish list” (Boudett et al., 2005). In this way, data become part of a continuous cycle of school improvement.

By Meg Schleppenbach
Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education
University of Chicago
Sarah DeLeeuw, Series Editor 


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The development of this brief was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0946875

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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