What’s the value of assessment data? How to make more reliable inferences about your students’ learning

by The Assessment Network, 09 January 2023
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Harnessing assessment data is an important element underpinning teaching and learning. When used well, data has the potential to empower practice, by giving practitioners the confidence to understand individual students, student cohorts, and the quality of the assessments themselves. In this blog, we examine the immense value of having an increased knowledge of assessment data, and how it can support individual practitioners and institutions to make reliable inferences about their students. 

What is assessment data?

Assessment data is a tool that provides a lens for you to look at your school and classroom’s performance. It can be used in a variety of ways to offer evidence about student learning in the curriculum, provide information about areas that need improvement, and support decision-making.

Teachers and school leaders who truly understand the key principles of assessment can make decisions that are based on evidence rather than purely by judgement. Fundamentally, the outcomes of using data from a variety of reliable sources can lead to better planned, better taught, and better assessed lessons.

Harnessing valid and reliable data

It is a common misconception that data in a school environment is just about numbers. Significant information can also be taken from attendance records, behaviour reports, and self-evaluation, which all have an impact on student learning However, in many cases the expertise to understand exactly what data is valid and reliable is lacking.

For example, although ‘initial assessments’ are not based on prior subject knowledge they can be highly useful in evaluating a student’s starting point in the learning cycle. However, the raw information created by this form of assessment is not very valuable on its own. An experienced practitioner is still needed to collect and analyse the data to unlock its true meaning. Without an understanding of statistics, mistakes may be made when interpreting the data leading to decisions that don’t reflect the true needs of the students and the school.

More impactful planning

Each stage of the assessment process produces a different type of data that can provide evidence for decision making, leading to better student outcomes. In a classroom, understanding assessment data will allow you to evaluate the students, the individual and collective results, and the effectiveness of the test itself. Every assessment has a purpose, and interrogating the information helps us to decide if it's having the desired impact.

This allows teachers to better consider what steps are needed in the immediate and long-term future to support the learning needs of their class. By gaining the knowledge and skills to obtain and analyse the most useful information, teachers can reduce the amount of time spent collecting meaningless data.

Looking at a school-wide context, an increased understanding of assessment data allows for a more focused senior leadership strategy. Monitoring of progress provides leaders with valuable insights into critical skills and competencies as well as overall classroom performance. Assessment data can also highlight commonalities in areas of the curriculum where children are underperforming and may suggest where CPD support is needed for staff in the future.

The importance of a data culture in your school

To unlock a data culture in your school, data and information need to be consistent and comparable across teachers, classes, and time periods. Therefore, an over-arching strategy is required to create an environment to nurture a healthy, sustainable data culture that will last.

Data culture is also about transparency - data isn't always the answer but it can be what leads you to ask the questions. If schools or teachers feel they need to be secretive about their data, it will be difficult to achieve desired outcomes.

The road to a strong data culture in your school will be an ongoing process, not a fixed destination. Leaders need to promote a culture in which staff can engage meaningfully with various types of data, design data-informed action plans, and use data to observe progress towards goals.

Without the support of continuous development opportunities, this aim can become unattainable. A robust data culture should allow educators and school leaders to make reliable inferences,  not bog educators down in unnecessary and uninformative box-ticking exercises.

Remembering the purpose of data

The purpose of data in schools can often be lost due to the sheer amount educators are being asked to collect and navigate. A comprehensive understanding of assessment data can tackle this and empower practice instead of creating additional barriers to teaching and learning. Essentially, the correct use of assessment data is an impactful and visceral way to positively influence learning in your school or institution. However, without the proper support, this true purpose can be lost, challenged, or misconstrued by an increasingly busy education community.

Students should remain at the heart of the data, not the numbers. To achieve this, you must have the confidence and expertise to use assessment data not only on an individual level but as a school-wide community, empowering your practice and leading to improved outcomes for your students.

If you'd like to develop your understanding of assessment data then the workshop series, An introduction to statistics for assessment would be the perfect starting point. And Using assessment data to empower practice will give you the tools to build an effective data culture in your school.

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Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

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