The No Child Left Behind Act and its requirements are forcing educators nationwide to apply the concept of data-driven decision making in their schools. After reading the January 2003 issue of the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse’s ENC Focus, I came away with a better understanding of this concept in general and a clearer picture of how it could help district proposal writers demonstrate a clear and convincing need for their grant projects.

The needs assessment section of a grant proposal is usually worth a significant number of points in the scoring process. This is the section of your proposal in which you make the case for why your proposed project is necessary. Successful needs assessment sections contain documentation to support your claims (as opposed to saying, “My superintendent has identified the need…”), and this documentation generally consists of data that have been collected and analyzed. These data can take many forms, such as standardized test scores on national tests (probably the most popular choice at the moment), course assessments, district assessments, classroom assessments, graduation rates, number of students in the free and reduced-price lunch program, attendance rates, dropout rates, and so on.

Why do proposal writers have such a difficult time writing the needs assessment section of their grant proposals? According to the article “Data for Decisions are Just a Click Away,” author Cynthia Lim states, “A survey of the literature suggests that educators do not routinely use data because of several factors: lack of access to data; lack of technical expertise in manipulating data; lack of analytical training; and lack of training in developing an action plan after examining data (Choppin, 2002; Cromey, 2000; Mason 2002; Khanna, et al., 1999).” My guess is that most proposal writers do not have data easily available to them or that they, too, do not know how to analyze the data that are present in a meaningful way to support the need for projects being considered.

Ask questions such as: How well prepared are our elementary school students for middle school math? What content strands do our students struggle with? Are we preparing our elementary school students with the building blocks they will need for high school English? Where are there gaps in learning, and what needs to be improved in our curriculum? By using the data that are available about your students from multiple measures and finding the answers to these questions, you should be able to use this information to design projects that will address the specific needs you are facing in your school or district.

Supporters of data-driven decision making say one of the main benefits to this approach is that using data in an effective way leads to a better understanding of student learning, which in turn leads to better planning for improved student achievement. It makes sense that the improved use of data will enable you to have a clearer sense of your needs, and as a result you’ll be better prepared to create projects that address these needs—projects that will have a significant impact on student achievement. This should result in stronger proposals that are more likely to be funded—the ultimate goal of any proposal writer.