Analyzing Student Data May Not Be As Effective As We Think

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We can put a man on the moon, but we still haven’t figured out how to make the most of teachers’ time. That’s the skinny from a new Hechinger Report piece on data analysis, the long-held practice of teachers analyzing student test scores to better understand how to help those who are struggling. But despite data analysis being the cornerstone of many low-performing schools, its effectiveness is under fire.

“Studying student data seems to not at all improve student outcomes in most of the evaluations I’ve seen,” said Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, at a February 2022  presentation of the Research Partnership for Professional Learning, a new nonprofit organization that seeks to improve teaching.

“It’s a huge industry and there are major sales to schools,” said Hill in an interview afterward. “The market forces continue to push this on schools even with very, very limited efficacy evidence unfortunately.” 

Hill reviewed 23 student outcomes from 10 different data programs used in schools and found that the majority showed no benefits for students. Only two were positive for students and in one study, students were worse off. 

Because data analysis has long been such a critical component of professional learning communities (PLCs) and other instructional meetings, these findings raise an important question: how, then, can schools use their staff members’ time efficiently to promote student achievement?

Feedback and Curriculum Analysis

Time may be better spent on practices such as feedback and curriculum analysis where a longer track record of success exists.

Over and over again, studies have shown that specific, written feedback on student work is highly effective for improving their learning of new skills or concepts. Likewise, when teachers are able to use shared planning time to engage with colleagues about how to best implement curriculum, introduce new ideas, or provide interventions, student learning improves.

In a separate piece for Education Week, Hill reflects on this: “In a recent review of 95 STEM instructional-improvement programs, several colleagues and I found that when teacher PD focused on the curriculum materials teachers would use in their classrooms, student performance rose about 10 percentile points.” However, participating in curriculum deep-dives and providing written feedback are processes that take time, and when teachers are being asked to juggle a thousand tasks—like analyzing test data—time is a precious commodity.

Findings like this just go to show the importance of administrators staying up to date with timely research, despite being primarily viewed as practitioners; when a practice no longer yields fruit, the savvy principal knows it’s time to pull the plug.

Data remains critical, but when teachers are handed a color-coded list of student names instead of a strong curriculum or leveled resources to actually address students’ needs, nothing of consequence is being accomplished. 

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Let’s find more efficient ways to use our teachers’ time.

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