Oct 31 2006

Best Practices: Understanding and Using Data

Need a better grip on student test data? Here are some practical guidelines on how to gauge student progress and improve educational outcomes.

Sometimes it seems as though testing is the new educational pastime. Teachers, school districts and states test students at every turn, but the resulting scores can easily lead to confusion rather than insight.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Analyzing data and then changing your teaching focus isn’t easy. Still, here are useful guidelines for improving educational outcomes.

Some Best Practices

Gauge student progress through the year. Test on “a systematic, regular basis, so you’re comparing apples with apples,” recommends Sylvia Diaz, the instructional technology coordinator at the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. By giving tests throughout the school year, not just once at the end, teachers can alter instruction during the term and address student needs in time to make changes.

Network with your peers and compare notes with other educators. Alan Phillips, California’s statewide videoconferencing coordinator, puts teachers at underperforming schools in touch—using videoconferencing—with those that test well. Phillips suggests that working in partnership will allow schools—or districts, for that matter—to gain information and methods that will help them better analyze and use their test data.

Compare scores in associated subjects. “Examine the relationships between test scores for related subjects, such as math and reading, to home in on where to help students,” advises David Davare, director of research services for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. Students who need to improve their math scores may sometimes be helped by focusing on improving reading.

Address the students’ learning strategies. Some students don’t know how to study or feel disconnected from the subject matter. Understand and consider your test data in the wider context of the students’ lives.

Instead of looking at math and reading scores in a vacuum, “use the data to evaluate how effective the students’ learning strategies are, whether they can easily communicate with others and how they apply their knowledge in daily life—in other classes and school-related activities such as sports,” suggests Paul Barton, senior associate in the Policy Evaluation and Research Center, Educational Testing Service.

Claire Meirowitz, a freelance writer and editor who specializes in information technology and education, is based in Babylon, N.Y.

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