Analytics tools help educators visualize trends and quickly respond to at-risk student behavior
School software programs are getting more sophisticated in using data analytics to help educators target their instruction more effectively and personalize learning for students.
Learning and instructional management systems now include increasingly powerful “data dashboards” that show teachers and administrators what interventions their students need—and how best to deliver these.
A ‘natural progression’
“The use of analytics is a natural progression as districts continue to personalize student learning,” said Ray Ackerlund, vice president of marketing for Skyward Inc.  “Having a stronger understanding of each student’s progress, and the ability to analyze data to identify trends or deficiencies, … provides a more impactful learning environment.”
During the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference  in Austin last month, Skyward debuted a new data analytics tool called myDistrict360. Developed in partnership with analytics company BravePoint, it’s a customizable portal for teachers and administrators to visualize student and financial information in an easy-to-understand format.
On the instructional side, educators can set up “Watchlist Alerts” that let them know which students need extra attention, using automatic triggers they create themselves—such as a certain number of unexcused absences or missed assignments.
On the business side, school and district leaders can get a visual breakdown of their costs, and what percentage of their total budget each item represents. They can do budget forecasting by changing different variables and seeing how these changes would affect costs.
At TCEA, Schoology  also announced a new analytics dashboard for its learning management system.
This enhancement to the enterprise version of Schoology helps educators measure and quantify student learning over time, the company said, using quizzes, homework, projects, test items, and other assignments that are aligned with learning outcomes.
Schoology comes pre-loaded with state and Common Core standards, so teachers can align all assignments entered into the software with these standards—or they can add their own customized learning outcomes.
(Next page: A unique approach to analytics that uses “motion graphs” to tell a story—and “recommendation engines” that can suggest specific interventions for each student)
Kickboard  is an instructional management system that, like Skyward’s new myDistrict360, gives users the ability to set up customizable triggers of student behavior. But Kickboard also lets you establish triggers around positive behaviors, said CEO Jennifer Medbery.
For instance, a principal could set up the system to alert her when a student who has previously gotten a failing grade earns, say, three passing grades in a row—so she can offer positive reinforcement in the form of praise, Medbery said.
Kickboard reportedly is being used in about 1,000 schools nationwide. Teachers can access the cloud-based platform free of charge, and the company also sells an enterprise version for schools and districts.
Personalization of STEM learning
Instructure’s  Canvas LMS was one of the first such programs to integrate powerful learning analytics tools a few years ago. This year, the company has added state and national STEM standards into its platform.
“Personalizing instruction for every student, every day, is a management nightmare, and this feature will be a huge help in reducing administrative headaches and accelerating the development of STEM programs in particular,” said co-founder Brian Whitmer in a statement.
Analyzing formative assessments
Last fall, SunGard  added support for formative assessments to its PerformancePLUS curriculum and assessment management software.
“Teachers want better ways to evaluate student understanding so they can meet students where they are and guide their learning through differentiated instruction,” said Joel Hames, senior product manager for SunGard K-12 Education, in a statement. “Our support for formative assessments can help teachers by providing insights they need for effective decision-making.”
With PerformancePLUS, teachers can build formative assessments from their Class Detail page. After answering a few questions about assessment design, they can create their own questions or choose standards-based questions from the product’s Content Library. Then, they can print their own bubble sheets or push the assessment to student devices using an Online Assessments module.
The software’s built-in data analytics help educators create individual learning plans for each student, based on assessment results.
Motion graphs demonstrate progress over time
Sifu Ed  is a standards-based online gradebook for teachers and school districts. The software makes it easy for teachers to enter data from student assessments and observations using a smart phone or tablet computer, from wherever they are in class—but what’s really unique about the system is its use of “motion graphs” to show student progress visually over time.
To use these “motion graphs,” you would set the parameters for the X and Y axis—then hit the “play” button to see what patterns and insights emerge. For instance, you could set the X axis to “time” and the Y axis to “average reading scores,” and you could see how these have changed for all students or certain subsets of students over the course of the year.
A number of new analytics programs include features that can suggest specific interventions to help personalize learning for each student. One such system is itslearning, which is a cloud-based LMS reportedly used by some four million students and teachers.
Itslearning  developed what it calls a “recommendation engine” in working with Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools, and the feature is now available to all itslearning customers.
The software records each student’s performance on assignments, activities, and assessments, and a standards mastery report shows teachers which areas are not yet mastered. The system automatically recommends standards-aligned resources and content tailored to the needs of students who need more support.
Engrade  is another analytics program that suggests specific learning resources for each student.
“Our goal is to connect the right resources with the right student, at the right time,” said Zach Posner, CEO of Engrade, which was acquired by McGraw-Hill Education last month.
Privacy a concern?
As the use of data analytics becomes more prevalent in schools, some parents have expressed concerns about the privacy of student information stored in these systems, many of which are based in the cloud.
“From our perspective, it’s important that all [information] is controlled by the districts,” Posner said. “This is data they already have—we’re just trying to make it more accessible to educators.”