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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Three Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Updated 01/2014

The job of a teacher is to be faithful to authentic student learning. Currently, our profession is fixated on results from one test, from one day, given near the end of the school year. And, yes, that is data that can be useful, however, we teachers spend the entire year collecting all sorts of immediate and valuable information about students that informs and influences how we teach, as well as where and what we review, re-adjust, and re-teach.

So when we speak about student data, here's how teachers collect it and some of the ways we use it.

#1 From the Classroom

Formative Assessments

Checking for understanding with low-stakes assessments are really the most important and useful of student data. Using exit slips, brief quizzes, and thumbs up/thumbs down are a few of my favorite ways to gather information on where students are and where we need to go next.


The beauty of having a constructivist, student-directed classroom? The kids are comfortable with you walking around and sitting with them in their groups -- your "guide on the side" role. In other words, they don't freeze up when you step away from the podium or your teacher-directed spot by the whiteboard. This freedom allows you to be a fly on the wall, gathering data on individual students -- how well are they making sense of the content? Interacting with others? Are they struggling with a learning activity? Observation data then allow us to adjust pacing for the whole class or scaffold for those students who are still struggling.

Projects, Essays, Exams

Summative assessments, such as a literary analysis essay or an end-of-unit science exam, allow us to measure the growth of individual and whole-group learning. If a large number of students don't do well on a high-stakes assessment, we need to reflect back on the teaching and make necessary adjustments in the future.

#2 From Cumulative Files

It's difficult to find the time to do it, but if you haven't before, trust me it's well worth it. Much information is found in a student's file. Just from trekking to the counseling office, sitting down with a cup of coffee after school and reading through files belonging to students I had deeper wonderings about beyond the data in hand, I've discovered over the years, to name a few, some of the following:

  • A girl who often missed class was homeless
  • Several students identified as gifted but inaccurately placed in my general education English class
  • A boy struggling to fit in had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia
  • More than a dozen students who never wore eyeglasses in class (or contacts, I checked) had prescriptions

From a child's cumulative files you can sometimes see a dramatic grade change somewhere along the road during their school journey. Perhaps prior to eighth grade, the child was an A student, then from there, D's and F's. You can express this concern, sharing this data with them. Students may then share with you a reason: parents divorced, they moved to a new city/community. I had one student share that she just gave up on school when her dad went to prison.

You then have an opportunity to provide empathy, acknowledge their hardship, and then set some goals together for the child to improve academically.

#3 From the State Test

Taking a look at previous standardized test scores for your current students is beneficial in several ways. A disclaimer: just as one grade does not determine all that a student is or isn't, nor does one test score. Use standardized test data results along with other data (i.e. in-class assignments, observations) when making instructional decisions. That said, here are some suggestions for using standardized test data:

  • First, you can share the testing results with students individually and set some obtainable, realistic goals for them to work towards before the next test. (By the way, I don't agree with making this data public to all students as was done at one Orange County, Calif., high school recently).
  • It reveals which of your students performed advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. This could help inform how you choose student groups, create seating charts, and differentiate for individuals. If I have a student who has historically scored below basic and she exhibits other signs of a struggling student, I like to place her in the front of the class so that I can easily access her when she needs extra support
  • If you have a high number of students who scored advanced in your third period class for example and a high number of students who scored basic in period two, this may give insights as to why period three may be moving more quickly and more deeply through content. You can adjust the learning and support accordingly
  • How about those ace students who didn't do so well on the standardized test? Possibly a nervous test-taker? Or it could simply be low motivation (since many students never hear hide nor hair about their standardized test results from previous years). Prior to the test, a brief pep talk or quick review of test strategies for lowering anxiety could be all that she or he needs

What are ways in which you collect student data and how has this benefited the instruction and learning in your classroom?

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Christie1124's picture

The district I teach in has a great data system that is accessible to the teacher that contains all of the standardized test data for the student. At any time I can review what the student's progression has been in a content area. The system also allows for a running record of teacher comments and record keeping of parent contact as well as IEP information. The only problem with this system is that very few teachers utilize the functionality of the system.

I was very lucky that in my prior district I had a great relationship with the school counselor. Having the comfort level and ability to talk to her about a student really allowed me to then go back to the student and parent and be better prepared to have a conversation about the student's performance.

While I agree that having the data available and a team to help interpret the data is beneficial what about just talking to the student? Sometimes the most obvious is overlooked. While I was a part of an intervention team the most beneficial information was coming from the student. I also found that the tried and true method of observation was just as valuable.

Stacey's picture
2nd Grade Teacher

I truly enjoyed reading your blog and everyone's wonderful comments!

My school is a very data-driven environment. I almost think there is too much formative assessment happening in our school, however, we are seeing positive results.

With regard to the state formative assessments, at our school we are given time to sit down as a grade level and analyze the results. We look at the performance from the grade level as a whole, and we group our children based on that performance. We then use these groups as either remediation or excelleration groups. We split up and share our students, based on their needs shown on the test results, and use various times during the day to either remediate or excellerate their learning. It's a very tedious and time consuming process, however, it brings the grade level together, and guides us on how we can all work together to make our students successful.

Amy's picture
4th Grade Teacher from New Jersey


I really enjoyed reading your post about the different types of assessments. I am a fourth grade teacher in an affluent district where, at times, too much stress is placed on the state test. I agree with you that, although the data collected from the state test is helpful, it is not fair to assess a child based on one test score.

Similarly to what you have written, I often visit my students' previous teachers. This allows me to gather information that tells well beyond any "numbers." It also allows me to put out fires before they start, so to speak. I liked the term you used "guide on the side," as I often collected knowledge through observation. At times, I walk around with a clipboard that has a grid with students' names. This way I am able to jot down notes quickly and refer to them during reflection.

Thank you for a great post!

Shelly's picture
Reading Interventionist

I appreciated your post about assessment. It is so easy to get bogged down in assessment, letting it take away from our valuable teaching time. I appreciated your suggestions on how to use all forms of assessment to inform our instruction, to review, re-adjust and re-teach, I love the way you put that.
You talked about using observation as a method of assessment, what a valuable piece. In our district we have recently implemented reading coaches part time (I am an interventionist part of the day and now a coach part of the day). Some teachers are quite hostile at this point, they don't see the value of a coach. I wonder if it would be appropriate to develop the viewpoint with teachers that my observations are like theirs in their classroom, it will help us to review, re-adjust, or re-teach things that might be helpful in their instruction. Would that help or create more hostility? Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Rolanda Clark's picture
Rolanda Clark
Third Grade Math/Science Teacher from Shreveport, Louisiana

Identifying our students' areas of weakness is one important task that we as teachers face. One thing I really like about this blog post is that there are several strategies listed that can help a teacher be successful in identifying her students' weaknesses. I also like the examples of usage as well. I have noticed in education we are moving toward a "data-driven" class environment. When I say data-driven, I am speaking of using the data we collect from our students on weekly tests, standardized tests, and general observations in class. By using this data, we are able to design lessons that efficiently accommodate the needs of our students, and we are also able to tailor small group instruction to the students. I have worked in a school were data was used in excess. The students were testing so frequently and with so many different tools, it made it hard to decipher which data was relevant or even accurate. When it comes to data, there is a middle ground that we should use. At my current school, that is how we do it. We test the students, use the data to design instruction, and then we monitor our students' growth over time. Overall, I believe that in education today, using data to access students' needs is the most beneficial way to begin the teaching and learning process.

Rachel's picture

Thank you for your post. I found it refreshing to be reminded of how important formative assessments are! In my grade-level PLC, we have been working on creating and administering common formative assessments. We have found that analyzing the data together has been a great way to inform us of our future teaching points, as well as a way to identify intervention groups that need to be formed. I also enjoyed your point of using cumulative files as ways to inform your teaching. I, too, have found out many surprising and important details by browsing through my students' files. Again, thank you for your post!

Alison's picture
6th Grade Math Teacher from Mississippi

The school I work in my principal is data driven. She organizes it in Excel spreadsheet so that we can use the information with ease. She shows our strengths and weaknesses. We have discussions with her ways we could improve our weaknesses. This process has really helped me over the years of teaching. Our tests are also set up like our state tests and we are able to gather data on which question or skill each student may not have mastered. Both of these are very useful items.

EdnaB's picture

I particularly like the idea of gathering students' information through their cumulative files. After having run out of all the strategies and modifications with a few of my students, I sometimes wish, I could get into their brains to know what's going on. I teach in a high need area and most of my students come from troubled family lives. I will definitely make the time to go through each of my students file because I never know what type of information I could find in there, that would allow me to respect my students for who they are and respond to their needs keeping in mind their specific challenges.
Other than using some of the ways that you have mentioned above in your blog, I also, use student portfolios for gathering data. As I mostly work with English Language Learners, I have tons of data that is filed in their portfolios. I make notes of my informal observations and their performance samples in this folder, which I then analyze on a consistent basis. Followed by this, I summarize my students' progress and then make the required changes in my instruction. This form of gathering data enables me to set goals for individual students as well as share this piece of information with their parents.
I also gather a lot of data through my students drawings. In most instances the beginner English Language learners are able to draw what they have learnt in class during a particular day as opposed to writing in correct sentences. I mostly ask my students to draw events in a story and talk about them in their own words. Through their drawings/illustrations and explanations I know exactly where they are on the language learning spectrum and what strategies I need to use in order for them to understand the concepts/skills better.
I let students act out the vocabulary in the lesson after we have gone through their meanings. I also ask a lot of leveled questions depending on my students' stages of language development. This helps me to know what to expect of each student in each stage of language development. Through group discussions too, there is ample data that I gather and analyze. Last but not the least I use a lot of games in Reading/ Language Arts, and I must say that I collect a lot of data on student learning that informs and guides my instruction and make my lessons more meaningful and realistic for my students.

Katelynn Reilly's picture
Katelynn Reilly
4th grade teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada

Formative assessments are beneficial and so are observations. However, I believe that our state tests are overrated. We spend twice as much time testing than we do teaching. They want all these tests to have the data to back up why we are doing so bad, but the truth is if we didn't test so much and taught more we'd being doing a lot better.

cameron's picture

Working in a school that is in PI and have a very challening population of students have opened my eyes to public education! The teaching credentialing program did not prepare me enough to deal with the hardships that truely affect our CST scores. While I agree we spend a lot of time teaching to the test, I also believe that not enough time is spent solving the real issue. In schools that are in PI status, the real issue is student motivation. Our kids are not stupid and CAN learn. The CST test are very easy and the proficient criteria is almost commical! Then what is the real issue?! You have to leave the school and walk in to the community to answer the question! It is poverty! Students do not see the link between education and success. They are missing several pieces of support to succeed in school! Many don't even have the time to do homework or have parents to ask for help because they are have to support their families when they leave school till midnight every night! Many are not living in family dwellings! But somehow, the Feds expect us to solve the social issues out their and get these kids to perform!!

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