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A recent Hechinger Report article highlighted how data analysis has not significantly improved student outcomes since the No Child Left Behind Act ramped up national data collection. Data — even high quality data— is of no value if it isn’t used effectively.   

Simply gathering evidence of learning, whether through tests or teacher-prompted feedback, is wasted effort if it does not inform the practice of teaching.

Does this mean we should eliminate testing or move away from data analysis, as some critics have suggested? No, not exactly.  Data has always been a starting point for education conversations. But no single test or data point will give you the whole picture. It’s like expecting that simply using a higher-quality flour in a chocolate cake will lead to a better cake. The flour is crucial, but it’s the skill of the baking that turns it into something delicious.

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What good data can do is provide educators with more evidence and focus as they create instructional plans that are responsive to the needs of each student. Data should prompt educators to ask deeper questions — Why isn’t this student understanding this concept? — rather than just reteaching a lesson.

And frankly, without good data from various types of tests and other sources, truly responsive teaching and learning can’t happen.

Good data helps teachers see their students’ readiness to learn relative to the curriculum covered in the class. It can help teachers design supports to ensure that all students have access to challenging, grade-level material and to enrichment and acceleration opportunities when they’re ready to advance. Good data helps teachers identify each student’s zone of proximal development — that sweet spot of content, just past their current level of independent ability, where instruction will be most beneficial.

Good data also points to research-based evidence about interventions and instructional strategies that have worked elsewhere — and that information should be shared widely across the education community. This is more critical now than ever as we look for ways to help students recover from the pandemic’s immense impact.

Simply put, data should have a purpose and an impact

Our organization, NWEA, is  helping to make sense of the various recovery options by conducting research and going beyond analysis into “what’s next.”

While the recent Hechinger Report article highlighted the issue of overusing data, it didn’t explain why data analysis is not more effective. One reason is that educators are not trained to be psychometricians, statisticians, researchers or data analysts, and we can’t expect them to be.

What we can do is provide more resources to teachers, principals and administrators. Specifically, professional learning that provides guidance and coaching, rooted in solid, evidence-based best practices about how to turn data into conversations, decisions and actions that do, in fact, improve student results.

But just adding more professional learning hours alone will not do the trick, just as examining data alone does not improve student outcomes. Professional learning is effective if it ultimately improves how teachers teach and coherently connects curriculum, instruction and assessment. To that end, our organization recently published a brief about how professional learning services can positively impact educators by focusing on what and how the participants learn, the organizational supports they need and how they will use the new knowledge and skills. Each of these indicators is measured against student outcomes to ensure that these new practices are driving results.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Researchers blast data analysis for teachers to help students 

We must be wary of the knee-jerk reaction that data analysis by school communities is a pointless exercise. Instead, we need to advocate for improving the use of data to help educators understand student learning and positively impact the craft of teaching.

Simply put, data should have a purpose and an impact: How do you intend to use it to support more effective instruction? What do you need to change, and how will you measure that it’s working? In between, you have meaningful analysis.

Chris Minnich is chief executive officer of NWEA, a research-based nonprofit that supports educators and students via assessment solutions and professional learning services.

This story about education data was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Chris Minnich is chief executive officer of NWEA, a research-based nonprofit that supports educators and students via assessment solutions and professional learning services.

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