Better data use requires better data systems

Former award-winning teacher Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD, on how to improve data systems

better-data-systemsI loved my 4-door sedan but knew it would never outrace a Lamborghini. Even if I had a driving coach and driving training, the tool I was using – in this case, the car – mattered when it came to results.

The same holds true for data reporting’s role in educators’ data use. Professional development, strong leadership, colleague support, and more are key factors in improving data use. However, the tool educators use – the data system and its reports – also matters greatly in whether or not educators understand the data and use it appropriately.

Although some data systems include tools to help educators use the system, they usually do not include adequate support for interpreting and using the data correctly. This is a missed opportunity. In fact, many data systems and reports actually encourage faulty analyses simply through bad design.

  • Score reports are frequently not designed in ways that are easy for educators to interpret.
  • Data is often not reported in formats educators need in order to use the data.
  • Data reports are not providing sufficient support to help educators analyze data they contain.

Having spent my career as an educator, I know the job’s demands are exorbitant. Fifty percent of educators report being regularly under great stress, and reporting tools they use should be sensitive to this. Doing so means more than just being “user friendly.” I have seen countless reports that are easy to use yet do not facilitate correct understanding and/or use of data they contain.

Labor-intensive data analysis is not a reasonable expectation of educators considering their job demands, so systems need to minimize analysis demands on educators just as such tools do for physicians. Just as it would be negligent for over-the-counter medication to offer no supports (e.g., labeling) to ensure its contents are used correctly, it is also negligent when data systems and reports do not support educators in using their data contents effectively.

A quantitative study of 211 educators rendered significant gains when reporting environments actively encouraged correct analyses:

  • Label  A footer (offering brief analysis guidance at the bottom of the data report) raised the accuracy of educators’ analyses of reported data by 307-336 percent.
  • Supplemental Documentation  A reference sheet (1 page explaining the data report it accompanied) raised the accuracy of educators’ analyses of reported data by 205-300 percent, and a reference guide (2-3 pages offering help using the data report it accompanied) raised the accuracy of educators’ analyses of reported data by 273-436 percent.
  • Help System  Educators need palatable lessons to help them not only use the data system, but also to understand the data in reports.
  • Package/Display  Design directly impacts successful use of reported data.
  • Contents  Report contents must reflect what educators need to make best use of the data.

Research behind this study is summarized in standards data system/report providers can follow to present data in ways that facilitate easy and accurate use. Data systems cannot maximize advantages and minimize detriments unless they give stakeholders meaningful feedback. Educators will welcome improved data systems, but students will ultimately benefit the most.

Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD, is a former award-winning teacher, site administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer (improving data systems). Her PhD in Education features a specialization in School Improvement Leadership, and she is entering the peer review stage in the publication of a book she has written on this article’s topic.

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