3 ways our district avoids data overload

If teachers are overwhelmed with data, they won’t use it to inform their instruction. Here’s how we solved this challenge

Schools give many tests throughout the year to identify students’ skills and gaps in their learning, including universal screening, diagnostic, formative, interim, and summative assessments. These tests generate a huge amount of data meant to guide instruction—but all of this information can be overwhelming if teachers don’t have an easy way to process it.

There is such a thing as having too much data. If teachers have to sort through an abundance of data to figure out what their students need, and if they don’t know which data points they should focus on to achieve the greatest impact on learning, then they won’t use data to inform their instruction—and the money invested in data analysis and reporting tools will have been largely wasted.

That used to be our experience in California’s Buena Park School District, which serves nearly 5,000 students in grades K-8. We had a great data tool, but teachers weren’t using it. After making a few simple changes, however, we saw our teachers’ use of data begin to skyrocket.

Here are three key takeaways from our experience.

1. Collect student data in one simple place.
Our district uses Illuminate Data and Assessment (DnA) to help teachers make better decisions that lead to student achievement gains. With this software, we’re able to collect student data from many different sources and assessments and present it through a single dashboard. Teachers don’t have to go hunting for information in separate software systems. Everything they need to inform their instruction is in one place, saving valuable time.

2. Make the information easy to read and understand.
Our data system allows users to view more than 20 standard reports, and we can create custom reports as well. Each report is intended to drive conversation—not just present information. For instance, the reports contain simple graphs and charts as well as a brief written summary that explains what the report shows and the questions it answers. Teachers aren’t data scientists, and we’ve found that our teachers appreciate having these concise summaries to help them digest the information.

3. Give teachers only the information they need to improve teaching and learning.
Even though we had a powerful system that collected data in one place and made the information easy for teachers to understand, we still had many teachers who weren’t using the system to drive instruction. We realized during a staff meeting how few people were actually using it when we asked teachers to log in and follow along with our presentation—and many admitted they didn’t know their password.

That was a big wake-up call for us. We recognized that if we wanted teachers to use the platform, we had to simplify the number of reports for them to look at, so they wouldn’t be inundated with data.

Illuminate DnA has a dashboard that is fully customizable. Users can add or create “tiles” for various applications and reports, and clicking on a tile from the home screen takes you directly to that resource. To make the system as easy as possible, we created customized dashboards for each grade level. Each of these dashboards contains tiles only for the handful of reports and resources that we think will have the greatest impact on student success at that grade level.

For example, a kindergarten teacher will see tiles for kindergarten standards, kindergarten readiness reports, Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) results, DIBELS results, and intervention plans. A fifth-grade teacher sees tiles for the fifth-grade standards, Interim Assessment Block (IAB) results, EasyCBM results (an indicator for our Response to Intervention system), and state testing resources.

We also push out tiles to teachers at all grade levels, including attendance, grade books, math pacing guides, and writing rubrics. We’ve narrowed in on the reports and resources that teachers use regularly and avoided resources we knew they would only use infrequently. We wanted these tiles to become an intricate part of our teachers’ daily experience, and by streamlining the amount of data we put at their fingertips we have seen that happen.

This simple change has paid big dividends. Our teachers are now regularly using data to shape their practice. They are sharing and discussing their use of these tiles within grade-level teams. They have even begun asking us to add tiles for other reports they want to access—and they no longer suffer from data overload. Best of all, we are noticing gains in student achievement as a result.

About the Authors:

Debbie Clark and Stephanie Williamson are teachers on special assignment for the Buena Park Elementary School District in Orange County, California.

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