Using Data to Improve Student Outcomes in the Context of COVID-19
by Dr. Kelly A. Powell-Smith on April 22, 2020
"Relationships before rigor, grace before grades,
patience before programs, love before lessons." —Dr. Brad Johnson.
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Months ago, when I was tasked with writing a blog about using student data to improve outcomes, our lives were very different from where they are now.
I had some ideas about what I wanted to say about using data to drive instruction and using progress monitoring data to alter, when needed, the support provided to students in such a way that they reach their individual learning goals and both individual student and system-level outcomes are improved. This is an important topic that deserves our attention.
That is still true, yet, how do you focus on those outcomes in the midst of crisis, specifically a worldwide pandemic that has changed the shape of our everyday lives? What data will serve as benchmarks? Indeed, what are the outcomes toward which we should strive? Are they different now than before? Should they be? These are all questions that have been on my mind as I considered what to say about this topic at this time. Clearly, there are more questions than answers. With that in mind, what I offer is a series of considerations as we navigate this new educational territory.
As I began to consider this topic, I came across two pieces that offered some inspiration. One of those was a recent blog written by Howie Knoff, Disruptive Innovation and Redefining What is Truly Important  and the other was How Will You Measure Your Life?  by Clayton M. Christensen, 2010.
The circumstances in which we find ourselves as educators at this moment call for flexible and reflective thinking about the goals toward which we might aim and the goals that we might set for our students. I believe we will need to adjust our goals, and likely readjust them again at a later time. Ultimately, this means we will need to be flexible with expectations.
I would offer that we should focus our thinking and attention to what we can do right now to provide for the healthiest (academically and otherwise) and strongest start in the fall 2020–2021 school year in light of the current pandemic. As we do so, let's consider what values, principles, and priorities might guide us.
Of value that might guide us is to consider what we can do to build people up during this crisis so that we can achieve that strong start in the fall. What "people" am I referring to? I am talking about everyone—students, teachers, parents, administrators, and related services personnel. If a strong start in the fall is the primary outcome we will aim toward, what actions might we take and how can we track our progress toward that goal, while keeping in mind building people up? I will offer three points to consider (borrowed heavily from Clayton Christensen)
- Keep this purpose (i.e., build people up now, so that we have a strong fall start) front and center as we consider how we, as educators, expend our energy over the coming weeks and months.
- Let this goal impact how you allocate your resources—time, energy, etc. As such, we will need to carefully consider the balance between the need to maintain academic skills and the need to grow academic skills, while still honoring the need for greater flexibility to address immediate needs and provide emotional support.
- Choose the right yard stick(s)—we need to measure both short and long-term outcomes. We still need to be able to measure where students are so that we can ensure their future success.
This is a pretty tall order for educators who are, in many cases, attending to their own families' needs while trying to teach from a distance. As such, let's consider some things we can do right now as educators. What are some actions we can take; things we can control. Here is a list for consideration:
- Answer questions honestly
- Offer options
- Provide resources, if at all possible
- Be patient
- Be hopeful
At Acadience® Learning, we have been asked recently about what to do if students do not return to school this spring and there are no spring benchmark or progress monitoring data. In essence, educators are asking us: How can we provide some means to check in on our students' academic progress? We have been listening to educators and they are asking us to provide guidance for what is best practice under these unprecedented circumstances. In response to these questions, we spent time thinking about various options and the implications of those options. Our response is detailed in recent guidance  regarding conducting Acadience® Reading K–6 and Acadience® Math assessments. The guidance provides options for educators to consider as well as important caveats for use of any data collected.
Beyond an academic check on students, what are some other things we might do to make sure we set ourselves, and our students, up for a strong start in the fall? One of those might be to make sure we take care of ourselves as educators and help our students do the same. That may look very different than a traditional approach to collecting progress monitoring data. While there may be an opportunity for academic data collection to occur, and if it can be done that's great, but those data might not look like we expect and we should be prepared to be flexible regarding its interpretation. It will be important not to stress ourselves or our students to the breaking point in the name of collecting academic data. To do so not only puts your own health at risk, but we risk collecting data that won't be accurate or useful in the manner we had hoped.
For whatever data we collect, formal or informal, academic or not, we need to consider context. When the instructional context is good, the question becomes, what other reasons are there for why the student is not doing well? We will need to think about instructional context differently given the current COVID-19 pandemic. What parameters will we use to gauge what is a good instructional context under these conditions? Under typical circumstances, we might consider things like attendance and other barriers to instructional access. We will still need to consider these kinds of barriers, though they may look different given the context. For example, if we are doing distance learning, do students have access to technology? We also should consider how motivation, challenge, and feedback may vary in this new context. We will need to exercise patience with ourselves and our students as we navigate this territory.
As we look at student growth, as well as student skill levels in the fall, we will need to keep this broader context in mind. It will be increasingly important for educators to understand where students start academically in the fall 2020–2021 school year. One silver lining here is that we have ways of gauging students' initial skills, as well as procedures to set goals and track progress toward important outcomes. We have navigational tools at our disposal (e.g., Acadience Reading K–6). And these tools, along with teams of dedicated educators provide us with hope that, despite the disruption, we can get students back on track and monitor whether our work is achieving that goal.
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About the Author
Dr. Kelly A. Powell-Smith is Vice President and Associate Director of Research & Development at Acadience Learning, where she conducts research on assessment and intervention related to early childhood language and literacy development. Dr. Powell-Smith, a nationally certified school psychologist, obtained her doctorate in school psychology from the University of Oregon. She is a former Associate Professor of School Psychology at the University of South Florida. She was a faculty associate of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) and a consultant with the Eastern Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center (ERRFTAC). She has provided training in formative assessment and academic interventions in 22 states and Canada. Dr. Powell-Smith has conducted research related to children with various learning and behavioral difficulties, has served on the editorial boards for School Psychology Review, Psychology in the Schools, School Psychology Forum, Journal of Evidence Based Practices for Schools, and Proven Practice in the Prevention and Remediation of School Problems, and has conducted more than 230 national, state, and regional workshops and presentations.