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Using Assessment Data to Inform Instruction

In my 33 years as a teacher, I have seen various educational acronyms, programs, systems, etc. come and go. Some ideas simply seem to be recycled over the years and just renamed. I have been exposed to using data previously; unfortunately, it rendered no improvement for my instruction, let alone my students.

This year was different. Our district has developed a laser focus on using data to inform instruction. Every quarter, classes that are similar at each of our seven high schools (e.g. 10th grade United States History) gave the same interim assessment to inform our instruction. Several weeks after the test, each group of teachers from across the district convened to analyze the data, called “Data Driven Instruction” (DDI) professional development days.

I will be honest — at first, part of me believed this was just another recycled idea from 10 years ago, but my mind was soon changed. The leaders in our district structured our “Data Driven Instruction” days with great intentionality and support, which impressed me immensely.

Our last DDI day had a greater impact on my instructional practices than I could have foreseen. While analyzing the data I saw a huge gap in my students’ ability to “write across all documents.” For example, when taking the interim exam using documents as their source for their responses, the students often chose what seemed to them like the “right answer,” but never considered the connection between all the documents. They limited their responses to only one document and struggled to find the commonality in themes to correctly answer the questions. I needed to find a way to help students write across all of the documents, not just one.

I understood the gap, but I was unable to wrap my head around the instructional methods of teaching to close that gap. I sought the assistance of the instructional coach leading the professional development. We brainstormed my upcoming content and we landed on writing a mini-unit on Prohibition in the United States. The instructional coach put together the unit while I gave input about the direction and content.

This instructional coach came alongside me to help facilitate this unit. Our sole purpose was to use the data from the interim test to inform my instruction to help students be more successful in all forms of standardized tests moving forward.

We wrote the Prohibition unit to target the missing skills, but we also wrote it to help my students “see themselves in the curriculum.” We scrutinized each topic to ensure they would interest my students. This meant we chose documents of the era to reflect the roles of minority groups, women’s rights, and young men’s activities.

The unit walked students step-by-step how to make connections across documents. We created graphic organizers, modeled using the “teacher does, teacher-student do, student does” method, and gave feedback along the way.

After reviewing the first few days’ work, I realized from this round of data that I needed to step back and reteach some aspects. This “aha” moment was realizing that students struggled to understand how to find common elements in documents. I needed to formulate stronger questions to help direct students to recognize the commonality across sources.

By the end of the week, I found that students better understood the skill of writing across documents and how to apply it to standardized questions. They better understood the concept and still needed practice. However, because our district scheduled DDI days to specifically look at assessment data, I was better able to explicitly direct my instruction to address missing skills. I have no doubt that because of this opportunity I am a stronger teacher and my students are better prepared. I no longer see DDI days simply as a renaming of instructional methods, but a prospect of enhanced skill development for my students and the outcomes supported these findings.


Jill Cullis teaches Social Studies at Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado. She has held many positions in her 32 years as an educator, including leadership roles in her school/district, writing curriculum, and coaching many different sports. She also taught overseas in Bogota, Colombia, for two years as well as traveling in Latin America conducting professional development.