Expert Viewpoint

The Critical Role of Data in K–12 COVID Recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted schools and students across the nation. Recent research has revealed significant unfinished learning during the past two years. Student achievement in math and reading is lower than a typical year, with historically marginalized students and students in high-poverty schools disproportionately impacted. In addition to academic impacts, many students also faced social-emotional and economic challenges.

When the pandemic disrupted traditional in-person learning environments, K–12 schools were faced with the challenge of assessing the impact, triaging where possible, and developing long-term recovery plans. How much unfinished learning occurred, and in which grades was it most severe? Which schools or neighborhoods were most affected? Where was absenteeism highest? As schools recover, implementing the tools, policies, and practices necessary to capture and leverage actionable data will be critical.

Using Data to Identify District Trends

With a focus today on finding ways to remedy the loss of instructional time that occurred during the pandemic, educators are looking to all forms of data. From the cost of absences, to accountability gaps, to geomapping trends: Data must play a key role in the short- and long-term strategies education leaders deploy as they lead their districts and schools through COVID-19 recovery and beyond. Early identification of high-risk students is particularly critical this year, since new research has found wider gaps for the most vulnerable students.

There are several options for districts for identifying and measuring COVID-19 impact, but the most important factor is determining the common baseline for students. Many districts are using prior state test data or benchmark test data. Once the measurement method is selected, district leaders can begin to analyze the data to determine where to target interventions.

Larger districts may have data teams who are responsible for providing this information to teachers, but it remains a challenging task to understand what measure of unfinished learning has occurred and the extent to which it will affect a student's progress in coming years. As such, districts must have systems that make it easy to identify the variables of unfinished learning and provide each student's information in the context of their at-risk factors and in real-time.

We also know from the research and the experience of COVID-19 that various demographic groups are impacted differently. Being able to compare groups and students in different risk categories will help address these inequities. Understanding the impact across schools, communities, or subgroups — such as special education students or other traditionally disadvantaged groups — can help identify issues and implement interventions before academic failure occurs.

Having access to comprehensive data is also critical to tracking the success of interventions so that you can modify where needed and scale effective practices.

Tools Needed for Success

To succeed with closing achievement gaps, schools need more efficient ways to analyze their student data and identify which subgroups and which students need the most support.

The first step is to employ a platform where unfinished learning can be identified through the use of benchmark assessments and analysis of prior year state tests. This data will need to be in a user-friendly format. The data will also need to be accessible to almost everyone in the district responsible for lesson planning and curriculum; from administrators to teachers and counselors.

The second step is to communicate directly with parents in a 1:1 format. Districts will need a method of communication that will enable teachers to call or text parents and keep track of conversations that have occurred. The tracking ensures that all families have been reached and will help to identify students/families who have not engaged for further intervention.

To reach all families, conversations will need to happen in the language spoken at home. For this to be scaled to a class, grade, or school, the communication system will need instant translation capabilities beyond the capacity of a district translator.

The unfinished learning that has occurred and continues to occur due to COVID-19 is vast, and overcoming it will require multi-year investments into students and classrooms. To succeed with closing achievement gaps, schools need more efficient ways to analyze their student data and identify which subgroups and which students need the most support. It is essential that school leaders, educators, and parents have access to high-quality, real-time data at the student, classroom, school, and district levels to help support learning for all students.

About the Author

Aubrey “Russ” Davis is the founder and CEO of SchoolStatus, an education communications platform designed to improve parent and teacher communication through easy sharing of student attendance, learning, and achievement data and school-to-family engagement.