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Three Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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

Gina's picture
11th AP English Teacher

I have NEVER looked at a student's cumulative file, but I am going to do this ASAP. It is such a simple thing to do; you would think that everyone does this, but I know for a fact that I am not the only teacher at my campus who hasn't done this. I'm certain I am going to learn some important information that is going to change my approach with students. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

Fatima Garcia's picture
Fatima Garcia
High School Spanish Teacher. (9th- 12th grade)

WOW!!!.. I am definitely going to go to the cumulative file and look up some of my students who are struggling. This sounds like an easy thing to do with a big reward at the end. I think a lot of the teachers could use this as a way of getting to know our students better. I teach high school and I have 128 students, but there are some that I could really benefit from by looking at their file. I am definitely doing this tomorrow... Thanks for sharing!!... :)

Terrica Conley's picture
Terrica Conley
6th grade Math teacher from Memphis, TN

I can remember a time when the focus of learning was not to pass a test. I hate that we have to teach test year all year long. But I Guess I should get my head out of the past and get on board. I agree with the other comments, that I have never taken the time to look at files. I will do whatever it takes to keep my job. Yes.. I said it. My studnet's acores affect my employment. I just believe that a lot of different things should be considered when tagging students to teachers. If that student has missed 2days out of each week since school has started, they should not be included, but who am I?

Kristen's picture
Elementary Teacher

In our school district we have a lot of student data that is available to teachers. First, in the early elementary grade levels, we do many one-on-one assessments such as running records, letter recognition, concepts of print, high-frequency words, and writing assessments. After I finish these assessments, I analyze the data that I collected to see what concepts students are struggling with. In addition, I also use these assessments to create my leveled guided reading groups, so I can work more closely with each students' individual need. Another assessment that we use in the early grade levels is a computer program called IStation. This program administers a monthly assessment, which assesses students on phonemic awareness, text fluency, comprehension, letter knowledge, spelling and alphabetic decoding. As you can imagine, I am able to get a huge amount of data from these assessments (sometimes an overwhelming amount of data). I also analyze this data and use it to create individualized or small group interventions to help students who are struggling with specific content areas. While looking through and analyzing student data can be time consuming, I agree that there are many benefits that come from doing so!

Kristen's picture
Elementary Teacher

I forgot to add that I also go over my students' assessment scores with them each month. When I meet with individual students, we discuss the areas that they showed strengths in and the areas that we should work on. By discussing results with students, they do not think of these assessments as a way for the teacher to be "mean" and see what they did wrong. However, they think of these assessments as a tool that will help them succeed in the classroom.

Breanne's picture
Reading Interventionist

In my school, we have numerous amounts of data. We have data from district assessments, state assessments, classroom assessments, and other forms of assessments. Often times, I think we do not know how to use all of these pieces to help us guide instruction. Some assessments assess skills, reading levels, specific skills, or grade level skills; we are so inundated with data, I have found that we do not always know which is the best assessment. As a teacher, we need to realize what is the most beneficial for our teaching. For me, I use daily/weekly progress monitoring to allow me to see what information students are taking on and what areas in literacy, I need to focus my teaching. I use a lot of observation and monitoirng to inform my teaching. This helps to inform my teaching on what decisions I need to make for tomorrow's lesson and what my focus should be. The idea of using the classroom observation, cumulative file, and the state/district test; all together, is so important and crucial for students as well as teacher learning. We are constantly learning within the classroom about our students and how to effectively engage them, why bore them with something they already know? Classroom observation is so important and gives key understanding to what the student knows, does not know, and often lends itself to some behavior problems (not always). However, the cumulative file gives us teachers the background knowledge or prior knowledge of the students' life and experiences, this is where we can gain knowledge about multicultural experiences or the lack there of. This gives us such insight into why they act the way they do, where they are from, etc. and provides such knowledge that can truly enlighten teacher decisions. The state/district test is another piece of data; it gives insight to some of the student knowledge. I do not think that we should make this the only piece for our decision making. Sometimes, I think we want to rely on the data rather than their observation, while I understand this, I agree testing is just one day or week, and we all have bad days and at times teacher observation is more valuable in some cases. So, I agree we have to use all of these pieces to really make the best decisions for the students' learning and achievement. Thank you for bringing this to my attention; while I have done this in the past, I have forgotten to do this lately. Thank you for stressing this point; observation, cumulative files, and state/district test should all be included when making a decision about our student's learning and achievements.

Chera's picture
Preschool (Head Start) Teacher from Michigan

I really enjoyed reading your blog indicating the importance of gathering a variety of assessments before deciding if a student is capable of mastery a specific skill. Most of my teaching experience has been in a preschool classroom operated by a Head Start agency, and we use #1 (From the Classroom) & #2 (From Cumulative Files) when designing lesson plans, instruction, and assessments.

First, before the school year even begins I go through all of my students' files to learn about their home life, medical conditions, and history of behavior or any previous learning/social experiences. The information in the file not only allows me to get to know the individual child, but about their families' culture, history, and dynamics. It is very critical I review files in advance, because I conduct home visits with every family that is enrolled into my program. It is important for me to know if they come from a foster home, one or two parent household or living with a grandparent before walking into my classroom. I also look to see if the child has ever been in a previous preschool or daycare environment or if they have older or younger siblings, this tells me if they ever had social interactions with other children. I agree with you on how teachers can have a deeper understanding of why some students' academic success falls short based on information found from their files. Knowing the history of a child can help teachers set individual goals to improve academic learning and create a positive teacher-student relationship.

As a preschool teacher, most of my assessments come from individualization and classroom observations. Children at a preschool level use their learning through play as they are cooking in the kitchen, making patterns in the math center, building bridges for their trucks in the block center, writing letters or numbers in the writing center, etc. I write down these observations as they occur and reflect back on them as I plan my skill building groups or individualization. As you explained in your blog, one type of assessment (test) cannot determine a child's cognitive ability of a particular skill. For instance, at times when I confront a child to demonstrate a skill for me, the child feels uncomfortable or unsure and is unable to master the skill, but then I observe that same child performing the skill during free play. This is why it is very important to gather a variety of observations and assessments before determining if a child is able or unable to master the skills being taught.

Thank you for your blog!

Gena's picture
3rd grade Math & Science teacher from Walnut, MS

I have been reading a lot about formative assessments the past week and have found some very good ideas, including Student Interest Inventories. This could go under the cumulative files idea. It is another way of gathering information about your students. I did this activity with my 3rd grade students last week. I took them home over the weekend and read them. One moment I would be laughing, another moment I would be crying. These inventory survey helped me to better see why certain students behave the way they do. I wish I would have done this at the first of the year. I now have a better understanding of my students. I shared this idea because I agree that formative assessments, as you have spoken about, do play an important role in students success. Formative assessments go way beyond the final test grade.

Carey's picture
2nd grade teacher from the midwest

Our district allows us an hour once every two weeks to meet with our grade level teams to discuss any student data for math, reading, and writing. At each meeting, we discuss the scores and compile a list of effective teaching strategies to help boost the students in need of assistance. This hour, every two weeks, is well spent and we are thankful for the time.

We are required to give weekly reading tests that is associated with the reading curriculum. Then every six weeks the students take the unit review tests and our scores are compared throughout the district - not for the public to see. In addition to the reading tests scores, we are doing progress monitoring for DIBELS. The students have shown tremendous growth and are fabulously readers, but I think we are testing the students a little to much at this age. A lot of our time is spent testing.

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