Expert Viewpoint

Why Student Data is Vital for Schools to Address Inequities in 2022 and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on equity disparities in K–12 education, with new attention on how factors such as internet access, home environments, and family dynamics can impact student success. Students with limited language or learning proficiency and students experiencing poverty face additional challenges that can put their learning opportunities at a greater disadvantage.

As schools continue responding to pandemic disruptions, timely and comprehensive data in one spot remains critical to educators’ abilities to make informed decisions and create targeted interventions.

Painting a Comprehensive Picture

District leaders need a comprehensive picture to help guide decision-making in ways that best support students, educators, and schools, and seeing the full picture requires multiple data points. Insights regarding equity trends and other issues that may need attention often come from the ability to make comparisons or see relationships in data, and the ability to quickly aggregate and disaggregate data by subgroups (e.g., grade level, free/reduced lunch status). Often, insights can be derived from even basic data points.

Students’ schedules, for instance, indicate who is participating in rigorous academic opportunities, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs, or who is participating in programs like extracurricular activities. The percentages of enrollment in these programs and opportunities by demographic subgroups should mirror those of the district or school as a whole, and discrepancies suggest inequitable opportunities.

For example, a large district in Oklahoma as part of its larger strategic plan wanted to track equity in two specific areas for their high schoolers: Advanced Placement and concurrent college enrollment. Our team helped them create a dashboard to track not only participation in AP coursework, but also which students followed through and took and passed exams for college credit. These comparisons enabled the district to determine which students were taking steps toward college enrollment, and whether there were discrepancies in course participation, in test participation, or in test outcomes. In other words, using scheduling and test data, this district could see in a snapshot whether there were disparities, and roughly when those disparities started to take shape.

School attendance data can also be very helpful when it comes to targeting students who need additional support. Evidence suggests that chronic absenteeism, which is missing 10 percent or more school days, is detrimental to student success. Essentially, students aren’t learning if they’re not attending school. Intervening before students meet the criteria of being chronically absent is critical. The multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) is designed to offer an early warning system designating whether a student’s attendance is on a positive course, sliding off track, already off track, or majorly off track and trending toward chronic.

We recently supported a rural Mississippi school district that was interested in knowing whether there were differences in performance outcomes for students based on their MTSS attendance risk status. We used students’ performance level on the winter benchmark as the outcome variable of interest. The results showed a clear trend: 100% of students in the lowest performance level on the winter math assessment were considered ‘off track’ or ‘majorly off track’ according to the MTSS guidelines. Half of those students were already considered chronically absent by the winter term. In other words, 50% of the students performing at the lowest level on the math winter benchmark had already missed 10% or more of the school year. After seeing this information visualized, district leaders began discussing the need for an attendance intervention.

While quantitative data like attendance numbers and the demographics of students taking advanced courses is essential to identifying opportunity gaps, qualitative data such as communication records between parents and teachers can also provide essential information. Qualitative data offers context, richness, and nuance that nicely complement more quantitative data points. Using both types of data together is often key to uncovering areas for improvement, persistent challenges, and even success stories.

Putting Data Insights to Work

Identifying data trends and gaining insights can be informative and often interesting. However, the value really comes from putting those insights to work. Putting insights to work means using information gleaned from analyses to develop an action plan to address weaknesses.

For example, if you are analyzing participation in advanced coursework / exam participation and trends suggest discrepancies among certain groups, the next steps would be to determine potential root causes and create an intervention plan. As AP exams typically cost around $100 per exam, it could be that cost is a barrier. If additional data (e.g., qualitative data such as exit interviews from juniors or seniors, or anonymous surveys) supported this hypothesis, the information could provide supporting evidence in a grant proposal seeking funding for financially needy students to cover exam costs. Continuing to track trends after the removal of financial barriers would be helpful information for the school to determine whether they targeted the right barrier, and for sharing with the grantors as part of the post-award reporting process.

It is also important that data is shared with key stakeholders. Sharing data with teachers and collaborating to provide solutions are important to implementing successful programs and interventions that support student success.

Collaborating with families is also essential to re-engage disconnected students and provide assistance and support through familial involvement. As such, it is important that districts use communications tools that are easily accessible for families. Districts can immediately improve equity in communication by using communications platforms and tools that do not require parents to download apps or opt into messaging services.

Students’ circumstances and needs vary widely and can impact student outcomes. Districts can gain a more complete understanding of these needs and help identify key inequities that need to be addressed by leveraging multiple forms of data.

About the Author

Joy Smithson, Ph.D., is a data scientist at SchoolStatus and director of the Data Science Research Group. As a data scientist, she provides one-on-one support to district and school administrators to help them derive actionable insights from their data. Smithson holds a doctorate in communication studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.