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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Using Data to Support Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 11, 2021 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are examples of your collecting and using student “data” in the classroom successfully?

“Data” is a popular word in education circles. But what counts as data and what role should it have in our instruction is often a bone of contention.

Today, Lauren Nifong, Cindy Garcia, and Deedy Camarena share their experiences. All three were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In my own teaching practice, though, I’ve often found student scores on assessments to be useful information. The key to making it helpful to my instruction has been to pair it with other data I’ve gathered through observations and conversations (with students and with their families). For this reason (and others), I am an advocate of being more “data-informed” than being “data-driven” (see The Best Resources Showing Why We Need To Be “Data-Informed” & Not “Data-Driven”).

Formative assessments

Lauren Nifong is an instructional coach in Greenville, S.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in administration and supervision, and is currently a member of South Carolina ASCD’s 2020 Class of Emerging Leaders. You can connect with Lauren at @Lnifong0320 on Twitter:

Knowing how to successfully interpret and analyze data is crucial to the success of our students, but at times, we can be overwhelmed with various types of data in the classroom.

By far, the most impactful pieces of data that I have collected have been formative assessments. The beauty of formative assessments is that they can be short and to the point, yet the teacher can glean a wealth of valuable information from them. When administered on a daily basis, the teacher is able to identify students who have (or have not) mastered the daily learning target. By analyzing this data daily, the teacher can remediate in a small-group setting and give immediate feedback to students.

How often have we been reminded of the importance of prompt and intentional feedback? We have been told that waiting until the summative assessment to truly assess our students’ knowledge on a given standard is pointless. With the use of smaller formative assessments sprinkled throughout a unit, teachers can gain a better understanding of their students’ individual needs and remediate in a more timely manner.

In the age of technology, there are copious ways to create quick exit tickets and small formative assessments where the data is automatically aggregated for you. Programs like Google Forms, NearPod, and Kahoot all allow for instant feedback to the teachers and students.

Although technology can be a wonderful tool, over the years I have been quick to say, “Never forget the power of a sticky note.” As an elementary math teacher for several years, there were many times I would give students a sticky note at the end of a mini-lesson and have them complete two to three quick problems based on our lesson. I could spread these out on my round table and quickly group students based on common strengths and weaknesses. This small act gave me valuable information about my students’ understanding of the learning target and allowed me to formulate small groups that were differentiated, specific, and meaningful.

At times, we get caught up in creating these massively detailed and perfected end-of-unit tests. And while there is most certainly a place for these types of assessments, the information we receive from our students on a daily basis as we progress through the unit is even more powerful. By using daily formative assessments with my students, I was able to truly understand the educational needs of every student in my room. I knew where to meet them and could then strategically work on developing a plan to help them reach their learning goals.


“Anecdotal notes”

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

As a classroom teacher and as an instructional coach, I found that the most powerful data collected came from whole-group lessons, small-group instruction, and independent work.

During each lesson, an informal formative assessment such as an open-ended problem or prompt can help determine if students are understanding and can apply what is being taught. This data can be used by teachers to adjust lesson plans for the next day and determine how students need to be grouped for small-group instruction.

Small-group instruction should be flexible and targeted to address specific student misconceptions. Anecdotal notes during small groups can also be used to see if students are making progress and if strategies being employed are effective. Anecdotal notes may be short descriptions about how students are using strategies, what type of errors students are making, what type of errors students are no longer making, and the specific point where students get stuck.

Whether it’s a work station activity or lesson task, independent work can be a great data point to see what the student can do without teacher support. Independent work should allow students to show what they are thinking, their solution process, and their final response. As students are completing their independent work, teachers can determine what additional scaffolds might be needed, what needs to be retaught or reinforced, and which students might need additional content support.

A summative assessment at the end of a unit can be the final source of data to determine student understanding and mastery of the concept. Once the assessment is scored by the teacher, then the teacher can pull students for a conference. Conferring provides teachers to dig in deeper on incorrect assessment items and pinpoint the student misconception. This data allows the teacher to plan for intervention and keep in mind when planning units.


“Checking for understanding”

Deedy Camarena is the coordinator for English-language development (ELD), dual and world languages at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. She has worked closely with principals, teachers, and other stakeholders to assess student and staff needs:

To have a clear picture of students’ strengths and areas of growth, data is required as a point of entry. Educators have various data at their disposal to analyze and evaluate in order to inform instruction. By collecting and using formative and summative assessment data, I created a successful learning environment for my students.

Using formative-assessment data on a daily basis is crucial to understanding and supporting your students. One type of formative assessment is checking for understanding. On ASCD.org, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey state that “checking for understanding is part of a formative assessment system in which teachers identify learning goals, provide students feedback, and then plan instruction based on students’ errors and misconceptions.” One resource I use to implement checks for understanding are whiteboards. They provide immediate feedback as well as determine the errors and misconceptions present in the classroom. Using whiteboards, students write the answer to the question posed. After I counted to three, students would reveal their answers. I could easily and quickly see which students understood and which ones needed more support and practice.

Another type of formative-assessment data I used to check for understanding was polling. I used platforms such as Poll Everywhere and Kahoot, as well as the in-class activities Four Corners, Take a Stand, or Stand up and Share. Throughout these activities, I provided just-in-time feedback and support as needed. These types of data informed my instruction on a daily basis and allowed me to see the strengths and areas of growth for each student.

Summative-assessment data is also needed to construct individualized learning goals and guide instruction. For English-learners, language-assessment data such as the English Language Proficiency Assessment of California (ELPAC) provides data in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This data, or unit/benchmark assessments, allowed me to provide feedback, or as John Hattie states, feed-forward. Feed-forward encourages students to think about where they want to head to next in their learning. After the students reflected on the feed-forward questions, I conducted one-on-one goal-setting conferences with my students, discussing their feed-forward responses and guiding questions that promote reflection. This fostered student agency over their learning by reflecting on their progress and choosing their own goals. Their goals enabled me to adapt, guide, and personalize instruction to meet the needs of the students, creating a student-centered classroom.

Data collected from formative and summative assessments allowed me to dive deeper in understanding and learning with my students. Using platforms and activities to exercise checks for understanding, and goal setting protocols and guiding questions to implement one-on-one student conferences, have proven to be successful.


Thanks to Lauren, Cindy, and Deedy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign - new ones won’t be available until late January). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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