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3 Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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?

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Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

We have a new data coach that has been very helpful to our teaching process. I had an entire class that could show their comprehension on using graphic organizers- I even had one kid simplify one for easier use and another student created a step-by-step how-to guide on graphic organizers for other students. But on their assessments, they kept missing questions that targeted that standard. Our data coach pulled up past testing and observed my classroom to help me get to the root of the problem. We discovered that many of our students did not understand the test question. So with every standard, I have to create a lower level "standardized test question" whenever they create or evaluate to give them practice. I know I did not have a lot of practice with utilizing student data, so having a coach walk me through the process was very valuable.

Dan Stanton's picture
Dan Stanton
K-12 Teacher and College Instructor

The following book is informative with regard to High Stakes results. "Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization" Yong Zhao is a University of Oregon professor that delineates the issues and supports learners of all ages and cultures to accelerate their learning and achievement!

Alayna Wagner's picture
Alayna Wagner
First grade teacher from Ada, MN

I really enjoyed reading your blog. You brought up a lot of wonderful points about assessment. I agree that we are fixed on the end of the year tests. We focus so much on the state tests that sometimes we forget to look at who are students are and what works best for them. Assessments throughout the year should help us understand our students and change our teaching style to meet their needs. I like that you brought up a variety of assessments to use. We need to remember that all students learn differently, so that means they all test differently too. By incorporating a variety of assessments, you can get a deeper understanding of what each child knows and can do. You made a great point about going through cumulative files to learn more about your students on a personal level. This is an area that I want to try to improve on. You can never learn enough about your students.

jesse67's picture

Reflecting on the practices utilized is beneficial for all teaching practitioners. It allows you to rate the effectiveness of your teaching and alter what may or may have been effective. When I reflect on my teaching practices, my self-reflection or the reflection indicated by colleagues, the information attained is used to drive further instruction. As students strive to become more effective in their learning, I will become a reflective practitioner and strive to make learning effective. To change our practices, to change our beliefs, and to alter our own theories of change, we must slow down and have reflective conversations that allow us to think through possible changes.

Rachel Cline's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I thought I was doing enough with collecting data from my students. I collect a lot of information from my classroom my assessments, walking around, and talking with the students. I walk around my classroom continually and am always checking on and helping out students. I also look at the state test results to give me an idea right away at the beginning of the year who I can pick as my helpers to help out other students. I have not, however, used cumulative files to help get information on my students. I have thought about it when I have had issues with students and have not gotten any reply from parents, but I normally end up asking another teacher who has had the student or knows the family. It would probably be to my benefit to look into the cumulative files. Thanks for the great blog and wonderful information.

Alison's picture

I find myself often using classroom data to drive my instruction. I thought your perspective of using student files was very enlightening. I have had the feeling of dread having to look through them, but I always learn so much when I do. It has been along time since I have been reminded of using that as a resource. I have also collected student testing data from Cognos, a site that compiles standardized testing into one place for you to view. I have found this program very helpful when looking at setting goals for students and using it as a reference for instruction. It is one tool our district uses to help us when reviewing student scores.

Sharon Rose's picture
Sharon Rose
Special Education

The article briefly mentions formative assessments. In my experience, I've also found formative assessments to be extremely helpful. I would like to incorporate more assessments that use technology tools. Are there any suggestions from teachers as to technology based formative assessments that they have found as useful in determining student understanding?

Nicole's picture
High School Math Teacher in Watertown, CT

I noticed that you addressed the concept of using data from summative assessments but did not discuss what type of data you are analyzing. I wanted to put out what my district does to collect data. In the beginning found it very time consuming and tedious but afterwards find the importance of it. We would collect data from our common assessments and calculate the amount of points students got on particular critical thinking questions for each student on each question. Then during PLC time we collaborated to discuss what areas where common that need improvement and decide as a department on ways to reiterate the material either during flex, (a study hall everyday at the same time for entire school) during class-time by warm-ups or exit slips, or after school time.

I did also agree the reminder to look up previous records does help and so does calling home of parents when I notice scores or observations are off for a particular student. For instance a student was more disrespectful and not paying attention as he normally does and it was due to forgetting to take his medication for ADHD.

S. Wright's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog. It was a simple, yet necessary, breath of fresh air for me. Teachers may become overwhelmed with merely administering the formative or summative assessments, that they do not gain enough insight from the collected data. Or believe that these assessments are the sole way to collect valuable information about their students.
Within your blog, you mentioned three amazing ways for teachers to collect the necessary data that guides instruction. You proved that teachers do not have to use formative or summative assessments solely to collect valuable information about their students.
I loved your second point about using a child's cumulative files. The knowledge we learn from within these files can certainly help teachers relate to their students, as you mentioned. I plan to discuss this point with my colleagues and request their feedback about viewing student's cumulative files, as I have yet to do this. Thank you for the great strategies and blog! Keep up the great work!

Vanessa Hastings's picture

As a teacher at a charter school in New Orleans, I use data analysis all the time to inform decision-making. We actually have a whole platform called Schoolrunner that helps us manage student data. I put in student grades and out come interactive graphs and pivot tables that help build a comprehensive picture of scholar success and point to areas of improvement in my own teaching. It helps me manage the data without becoming overwhelmed and without spending hours poring over Excel spreadsheets like I used to do.

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