Data Conversations: Collaborating for Student Success

by Louise LeBron, M.S.

Analysis of assessment data creates a bridge between a school's shared vision and the reality of current school performance. Data analysis guides problem-solving and decision-making to address concerns about instructional practice. The process can be threatening to teachers if it is not a common practice within the school. To alleviate staff apprehension about exploring data and understanding its implications, a "staff must collaboratively participate in the collection and analysis of data so that the resulting information is trusted to be an accurate picture of current performance" (Zmuda, Kuklis, & Kline, 2004, p. 88). Data analysis as a collaborative practice creates an atmosphere of inquiry and collective responsibility that results in a shared understanding of the need to change teaching and learning practices to increase student achievement (Price & Koretz, 2005).

To support administrators and teachers in effective data analysis and productive data conversations, consider the following frequently asked question and proposed answers.

How do we channel the student-focused conversation into a conversation focused on instruction and related tasks?

Undoubtedly, student learning is influenced by factors such as home life and socioeconomics as well as previous school experiences. However, teachers often engage in conversations that center on these topics as reasons for poor student achievement-factors over which teachers have little or no influence (City, Kagle, & Teoh, 2005; Gravois & Gickling, 2003). Student learning is based on tasks and instruction, in other words, effective teaching practices, which are within teacher control (Gravois & Gickling, 2003). Moving the conversation from the student to the task and instruction requires four primary tasks outlined by City, Kagle, and Teoh (2005).

  • Connect student learning with instruction: When considering learning problems, how does instruction impact student learning?

  • Develop a shared understanding of instructional practice: What professional development resources can teachers access to develop a shared understanding of effective instructional practice?

  • Develop the skill of examining instructional practice: How do teachers learn about effective instructional practices (e.g., videos, observations, interviews)? How do they develop a shared language that allows them to communicate what they see?

  • Analyze current instructional practice in the classroom: What is truly happening in the classroom to address learning problems and is it aligned with our understanding of effective instructional practice?

How are assessment results analyzed to gain a realistic shared understanding of current school performance that includes authentic discussion about student learning?
  • Choose one assessment source for analysis to initiate discussion focused on instructional practice.

  • Analyze the assessment data to better understand how groups of students think and approach learning tasks. Questions such as What do students know? What can they do? How do they think? How do they approach tasks they are unsure of?

    will prompt administrators and teachers to raise questions about learning patterns and strengths as well as learning concerns (Gravois & Gickling, 2003).
  • Explore a variety of data sources to look for similar patterns across content areas (Mintz, Fiarman, & Buffett, 2005).

  • Use graphic data displays to direct attention to patterns and trends when exploring assessment results. Strategically crafted graphs can "paint" a picture for school staffs. Graphic displays should include complete titles (assessment name and date, number of students tested, grade level, subject) and graphically clear designs (labels, appropriate graph choice, use of color and font style for clarity) (Hodge & Willett, 2005).

To engage in such analysis is it necessary for teachers to be statisticians? No. However, teachers should develop a sound working knowledge of the basic principles of assessment in order to better interpret student test scores graphically (Price & Koretz, 2005). Requesting guidance and professional development from division assessment coordinators and school-based administrators as well as referencing resources such as Datawise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning (Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2005) are means to brush up on the essential understandings necessary for interpreting data accurately.

Also, ensure focused productive discussions by using a facilitated discussion process or protocol, which enables teachers to talk about significant patterns or themes in the data, develop "educational questions," and establish a common language around teaching and learning that clarifies misunderstandings. Structured discussions create a safe environment for having conversations about a given concern (Mintz et al., 2005).

Engaging in data conversations that focus on effective instructional practice requires meaningful professional development and opportunities for collaborative involvement of school staff. The net effect is a shared understanding of the school's current performance, which empower teachers to strategically change their instructional practice closing the achievement gap for all students.


Boudett, K.P., City, E.A., & Murnane, R.J. (Eds.). (2005). Datawise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

City, E.A., Kagle, M., & Teoh, M.B. (2005). Examining instruction. In K. P. Boudett, E.A. City, & R.J. Murnane (Eds.), Datawise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning (pp. 97-115). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Gravois, T., & Gickling, E. (2003). Instructional consultation team manual. College Park, MD: University of Maryland.

Hodge, S.T., & Willett, J.B. (2005). Creating a data overview. In K. P. Boudett, E.A. City, & R.J. Murnane (Eds.)., Datawise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning (pp. 59-79). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Mintz, E., Fiarman, S.E., & Buffett, T. (2005). Digging into data. In K. P. Boudett, E.A. City, & R.J. Murnane (Eds.), Datawise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning (pp. 81-96). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Price, J., & Koretz, D.M. (2005). Building assessment literacy. In K. P. Boudett, E. A. City, & R.J. Murnane (Eds.), Datawise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning (pp. 29-55). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Zmuda, A., Kuklis, R., & Kline, E. (2004). Transforming schools: Creating a culture of continuous improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Date: Feb/Mar 2007