The data dashboard has become more sophisticated, but it is still only one lens through which educators should view their students

When Amber Teamann was a teacher in Garland, Texas, seven years ago, her use of data to help guide her instruction was fairly limited.

“Based on the programs I was using, I could evaluate how to differentiate instruction for my students,” she said. But tracking how well her students were meeting specific grade-level standards at any moment during the year wasn’t an option for her at that time, nor was looking at larger trends until after the school year had ended.

Data “was something you would use as an autopsy when everything was over,” she said.

A lot has changed since then. Now, as the principal of Whitt Elementary School, part of the Wylie Independent School District in Texas, Teamann and her staff are using information that is more timely and that reveals students’ performance in relation to specific state standards to help guide their efforts.

“We’ve come a long way in using timely data to help drive instruction,” she noted.

For many teachers, access to timely data that helps tailor instruction in meaningful ways is still a challenge, a Gates Foundation report revealed last year. But in a growing number of school systems, this is improving—and the development of more sophisticated data dashboards that can pull together information from a variety of sources, including both formative and summative assessment data, is helping.

Measuring multiple factors is key

Teamann and her staff are using a data dashboard called Aware, from Plano, Texas-based Eduphoria, to monitor the growth of their students. With Aware, educators can create and administer their own assessments and also import other state and local test results to view students’ progress and understand larger trends. Teachers meet weekly in professional learning communities to review the data and plan their instruction accordingly.

Pulling together data from a variety of sources is important, Teamann said. If you don’t have access to a wide range of information, she explained, you won’t get an accurate picture of a student’s strengths or needs.

Steven Anderson, a former teacher and instructional technology director who maintains the website Web20Classroom, said data dashboards can be powerful tools—but only if they are part of a larger decision-making model that takes a more holistic view of students.

Next page: When to be wary of dashboards

“Data dashboards can be very beneficial if we’re using them in conjunction with other means of assessment,” he said, “such as formative assessment, portfolio assessment, and performance assessment.” If not, “then we’re making a huge mistake.”

Anderson also is wary of dashboards that claim to predict how well a student will do.

“When you start to rely on algorithms that tell you how students are going to achieve, there’s an inherent risk in that,” he said. “We’re only looking at one small piece of information, but there are so many other factors that affect student achievement. We’re not taking into account any of the other things that are happening in the classroom, or socioeconomic status, or parent involvement.”

Those non-academic factors are critical to School District 73.5 in Skokie, Ill. The district has created what it calls a Student Skills Rubric that measures factors such as how prepared students are for class, whether they are on time, how committed they are to learning, and how well they work with others.

“There is more to students than just academic data,” said Lisa Westman, a former teacher who is now an instructional coach helping District 73.5 educators differentiate their instruction. “There is affective data and student skills data, and data about how students learn best. If students feel safe and comfortable and connected to a teacher, they will succeed. For students to feel that way, they need to be taught in a way that works for them.”

The district is piloting a data dashboard called the Otus Student Performance Platform, created by two Chicago-area teachers—and the system is flexible enough to incorporate data from the custom-designed Student Skills Rubric, so teachers and administrators can see how students measure according to these factors in addition to more traditional academic ones.

The system “integrates all of our data,” Westman said, including formative and summative assessment results, third-party assessment data such as the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress or PARCC results, and the students skills and participation data.

Having all of this information available in a single dashboard is extremely helpful for educators, she said, and it leads to richer, more productive conversations among staff.

“It is of utmost importance to look at all of our students as multidimensional individuals,” she said. “I honestly believe there are no students who cannot achieve success; it’s just a matter of looking at the right information and then putting those puzzle pieces together in the right way. A data dashboard helps you to put those puzzle pieces together in a way that makes sense.”

Other essential characteristics

An effective data dashboard not only should contain information from several different sources and be flexible enough to incorporate both academic and non-academic factors—it also should provide insight into both larger trends and small details, Westman said, such as which discrete skills students need help with.

Above all, it must be easy to use.

“It needs to be teacher-friendly,” Teamann said. “If it requires entering information and then converting it and applying it in a different manner, that’s three steps you don’t need. Teachers aren’t statisticians, and they aren’t mathematicians. They’re working with kids. I want that to be as easy as possible for them.”

Data dashboards are only as effective as the information they contain, she added, and educators should not over-rely on them.

“Data tells a story, if you have enough data points. But I also never take for granted my teachers’ eyes and opinions,” she concluded. “There may be more to the story than what that child scored on his last two assessments. It’s important for teachers to have input as well.”

About the Author:

The former editor-in-chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology.