Backpacks, School Supplies, and Data: Begin the School Year with Purpose

It’s back-to-school time, and teachers are expressing their gratitude on social media as friends, relatives, and other supporters purchase items to donate from their classroom wish lists. These small gifts are helping to create dream classrooms for teachers to have the supplies and materials necessary for a successful school year. Although it’s obviously important to ensure teachers have the materials they need to create engaging lessons and positive learning environments, they also need support to deliver quality instruction aligned to the standards, which includes using state assessment data to better tailor their instruction.

As an instructional mentor, I eagerly await the arrival of assessment data for many reasons. While sifting through data, I reflect on specific information to determine the effectiveness of instruction. In Mississippi, the reports show the overall performance of students, classes, and grade levels in each domain (or area of skills) in reading, writing, and math. This gives educators the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of a student’s general instruction, interventions that were conducted during the year, and any specific strategies used with that student. I use this data in my role to not only evaluate different intervention programs overall, but also how the different programs worked for different students. I can also use the domain data to see areas of instructional strengths and areas of improvement for teachers, which provides me with additional insight and information so I can better support the teachers I mentor.

I use this data on a daily basis and am familiar and comfortable with digging deeply into it, because it is central to my ability to support teachers in the classroom. But in order for teachers to benefit from this data, many of them need additional support, since they are not prepared to be data scientists (nor should they have to be to understand the reports). They need access to their student’s data in a timely manner: before they begin preparing for a new group of students. And they need to understand how to analyze the data to reflect on their practices from the previous year to make instructional adjustments in the next year.

It is critical for leaders to support teachers in understanding the data so they can engage in these reflective practices. Teachers need support to understand what the data is saying about their instructional practices, and to understand areas they are doing well and what areas need more improvement. Doing so will allow teachers to clearly see the concepts and skills their students successfully mastered and those they did not, which gives teachers the opportunity to look at their instruction and make important adjustments to help their next group of students reach mastery.

State test data can also be used to help teachers better collaborate and learn from each other, as leaders can identify best practices and help ensure teachers are leveraging and scaling their individual best practices. Vertical collaboration between teachers of different grade levels is another effective use of data. For example, 3rd grade teachers can review the data of their former students with the upcoming 4th grade teachers, which helps teachers walk into the classroom on day one with a clear picture of their students’ academic performance.

We have spent much time and energy ensuring that we are holding our students to high expectations, and we have spent equally as much time ensuring we have quality assessments to measure student progress. But that only takes us so far. If educators and leaders are not equipped to use assessment data to inform instruction and decision making, it will be nearly impossible to fulfill the promise to provide every student with a high-quality education. State assessments can be a powerful tool for teachers and as we head into this back to school season, we just need to make sure they have the support needed to use them effectively.

Trish Stoll has served as an educator for over 15 years. She is National Board Certified in Early and Middle Childhood Art. Her instructional roles include 1st and 2nd grade teacher, PreK-5th grade visual arts instructor, reading interventionist, and literacy coach. She is currently serving as an instructional mentor with the Gulfport School District in Gulfport, MS.