Using Technology to Improve Achievement: Making Data Relevant


New information systems are helping statesand districts individualize instructionand boost student learning.

NEARLY 10 YEARS AGO, I taught in a progressive school district— or so it was in its approach to data. The superintendent wanted every child to be assessed on every standard, and for the results to be presented graphically. To that end, I was provided a substitute teacher to take over my classroom, giving me time to painstakingly report data on each child for every standard for the grade level, using the rankings “needs improvement,” “developing,” or “proficient” for each standard.

Making Data RelevantWhile this may sound like a worthwhile effort, the problem was that we did not have any specific assessments geared toward each standard; I had to make up my own self-assessment (based on my quizzes and tests) for each child. What I received in graphical form was exactly what I entered into the computer. There was no analysis—no ability, for example, to target what each student’s strengths and weaknesses were at understanding fractions. There was no added value to the many, many hours I spent inputting data.

The idea of keeping data on each child’s performance on each standard— translated into an ability to individualize instruction for each student—was right on target. However, we did not have technology to support this process, nor did we have an understanding of how best to use the data. Without a way to use the data or technology effectively, I did not have time or resources to develop appropriate assessments, analyze the resulting data, and decide on individualized plans and instructional materials. If anything, this paper-based process took up the time I could have devoted to creating more specific lessons, remediation, or enrichment for each child. Clearly, a decade ago, we had a long way to go in the gathering and using of data to aid student achievement.

Putting Funding to Use

Most researchers agree that several broad-based steps are required for the effective use of data in education. First, states or districts must agree upon which data elements and indicators to collect. Then, those responsible for collecting the data must ensure its integrity. Once the data is considered valid and reliable, educators must have the opportunity to use the data— and they must know what to do with it.

The federal government has been a key player in this process. For many years now, the US Department of Education has worked to define which data elements and indicators should be collected at the state and district levels. No Child Left Behind has played a major role in defining data, collecting data, and generally raising the attention given to data.

Last November, the department’s Institute of Education Sciences launched an important effort, awarding grants to 14 state education departments for the implementation and development of statewide longitudinal data systems. Although the amount of funding for any one state cannot cover the entire cost of the system, the three-year grants do provide a catalyst and focus to the state’s work.

The way these grants are being used demonstrates not only the potential of such statewide data systems, but also what states hope to accomplish with data systems. For example, with the help of the funding, Pennsylvania will implement its Pennsylvania Information Management System, a statewide, Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)-enabled PK-16 student record management and vertical reporting system designed to make a quality data and state-of-the-art learning-resource exchange available to educators, students, parents, and policymakers. The goal is for these stakeholders to use the system to support teaching and learning, eliminate performance gaps between subgroups of students, and contribute to improving the achievement of all students.

The ability to monitor real-time data will turn teachersinto empowered consumers of data rather thansimply proctors of a test.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, the grant will be used to create a longitudinal database that connects finance, student and teacher demographics, student assessments, and professional development with unique student and teacher identification numbers. Arkansas also will use the funding to implement an electronic transcript system.

The progress in data gathering and usage varies widely among states and districts. The Data Quality Campaign and the National Center for Education Accountability recently surveyed all 50 states, concerning 10 essential elements defined by the NCEA. Only seven states had systems that addressed at least eight of the elements, and no state could confirm hitting all 10. While most states and districts are works in progress, we do find encouraging glimpses of what lies ahead. These programs testify to the way states and districts are improving teaching and learning by gathering data on individual students, and linking that data to instruction that can help each child achieve.

Getting Teachers On Board

Many schools, districts, and states have embraced the use of handheld devices to assess reading on a daily basis in elementary- grade classrooms. Many elementary school teachers remember the reading running records, which assessed students’ reading abilities and were something of a predecessor to the approach being taken now by New Mexico and Delaware. In both states, funding from NCLB’s Reading First and Enhancing Education Through Technology programs provides resources for the use of wireless technology to assess students on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS).

The program interventions include teacher training, data collection, and reporting. To start, teachers were trained in the use of a PDA to assess students in grades K-3. At first, the teachers were skeptical of the technology and what they could do with it, but by the end of the first year, they refused to return to paper and pencil.

What sold teachers on this new process? The immediacy of the results, the ease of use, and the ability to readily use the data to inform their instructional practice were all instrumental. Both the progress monitoring that may be done as often as every one or two weeks and the benchmarking that is done three times a year make sense for instruction, because the principal, coach, and teacher can access data reports in a timely manner. In schools where teachers do not see their student data until the following year (when they no longer have those students), the new ability to monitor real-time data will turn teachers into empowered consumers of data rather than simply proctors of a test.

The New Mexico and Delaware examples illustrate what can be achieved once educators become comfortable with acquiring and using data. In talking to educators, using the term data often leads to that glazed-over, blank stare. Many see data and assessment as something being done to them and not for them. This perception will change as data systems are leveraged to improve teaching and learning. Most crucial to changing perceptions is taking the proper approach to professional development, one in which timely, relevant, and accurate data reaches the classroom. Once that structure is in place, we will begin to see data making a difference. Ideally, we will no longer hear about data, in and of itself; instead we will hear about how a particular student in a particular teacher’s class now has the appropriate curriculum and instruction to foster achievement.

Next Steps

In the 10 years since I first entered my personal student ratings into my former district’s cumbersome data system, great progress has been made in schools, districts, and states. Every public education entity in the nation is collecting data, as required by NCLB. The question is whether the efforts to collect the data are improving teaching practices within the classroom. In many cases (see “Inside the States”), the answer is yes.

The districts that are beginning to see the potential of data to improve teaching and learning typically have the following:

  1. Human and financial resources dedicated to developing data systems.
  2. The right team involved in the development and implementation of the systems and the use of data—including representatives from MIS/IT, curriculum, educational technology, assessment, teaching, and administration.
  3. Ownership among and professional development for teachers and administrators.

We still have a long way to go to ensure that teachers and administrators in every state, district, and school have access to useful and relevant data, but we have the opportunity to look at the examples where data systems are working and to learn from them. Data will become relevant to teachers and administrators when they connect it to how their students learn every day. The challenge is to make sure the resources invested in data collection over the next 10 years go well beyond providing required reporting data—and that they pay off by directly improving teaching and learning.


Bolstered by robust data systems and timely assessment information, teachers throughout the country are producing upward spikes in student performance.

Massachusetts :: The MassachusettsDepartment ofEducation hasbegun implementation of an educationaldata warehouse and reporting system. Thesystem’s long-term goals are boldly drawn:

-- To consolidate the hundreds of millions of data points collected by the department each year into a single archive, enabling reporting and analysis of educational data over time, and using relationships that current systems do not support.

-- To provide a unified, standardized data warehousing and online analysis tool to schools and districts, enabling them to load and analyze data from their own information systems. The number of surveys completed by school districts nationwide is astounding— some states report more than 100 per year. But Massachusetts hopes to save time and resources in data collection and reporting—as well as gather higher-quality data—by eliminating redundancies in all of its state surveys.

South Carolina :: In an environment typically driven by high-stakes summative assessments or objective formative assessments, South Carolina is looking at a unique way to assess the progress of teachers and students (see “Tech-Savvy Teachers”). The state is using technology to support the development of ePortfolios to assist teachers in assessing their own technology literacy. It’s a performance-based alternative to traditional data collection, one that is enhancing teachers’ technology skills and their ability to adapt instruction to improve student achievement. The same approach is being used to help students in the state, as well. Teachers are keeping ePortfolios as a way to assess students’ work over time. This represents yet another way that assessment and data can help to individualize instruction based upon the needs of teachers and students.

Virginia :: In all states, IT staff or management information system representatives play an integral role in data collection. In some states, the assessment department reps provide input; in others, the educational technology or curriculum folks have a seat at the table. Virginia has put the right people in place to ensure that the online assessment initiative is not viewed as a technology program, but as an education program (see “When Technology Met Accountability”). This level of collaboration and planning has allowed Virginia to demonstrate what data can provide to parents, teachers, and schools. The state is moving toward individualized instruction for all students through proper training that supports the effective, daily use of data-informed instruction.

Pennsylvania :: As described in T.H.E.’s 2005 SETDA issue (July), the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the School District of Philadelphia worked with a cohort of 40 schools to empower teachers through data. By this June, Philadelphia will have rolled out its instructional management system to all of its schools. The web-based IMS provides teachers with the district’s standardized curriculum and embedded links to teacher textbooks; periodic benchmark testing resulting in immediate performance feedback on curriculum delivered through the system; and individualized remedial and enrichment materials based on benchmark testing. The proof is in the progress: The number of Philadelphia schools that satisfy Adequate Yearly Progress standards has risen from 58 to 132 over the past two years, and state test scores have jumped up 14 percent in math and 10 percent in reading in that same period. The district is going one step further this year by adding FamilyNet, which provides online student information and instructional resources to students and their families. Philadelphia is supplementing its family outreach program with training and access to high-quality refurbished computers. The district is working with the Wireless Philadelphia program to provide affordable internet access to participating homes. These parents probably never expected involvement in data systems would become part of their parenting, and yet the access to timely data will increase their children’s potential for success no matter which educational path they choose.

Texas :: When Superintendent Pat Forgione arrived in Texas to lead Austin’s expansive school district, he assumed that some sort of infrastructure linking data to students and teachers would be available. He quickly discovered that if he wanted a system that would allow data and assessment to affect teaching and learning, he would need to develop it from scratch. As Forgione built support among school board members, teachers, and administrators, the Austin Independent School District committed to spending nearly $30 million over three years to institute a new system that provided teachers with formative and summative assessment data in a timely manner. The program links problems that students are experiencing on particular standards to instructional materials, digital content, and other interventions. As a result of this new data system, the teaching and learning process has been overhauled in Austin. The need to engage and instill ownership within the schools and district was critical to the program’s success. Student achievement has increased dramatically in Austin schools as teachers now have the information and the tools to target efforts for individual students. The data is making a difference.

Mary Ann Wolf is the executive director of SETDA.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.