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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

How School Districts Can Leverage Data in These Uncertain Times
By Gina Lucchesi and Brian Gill

How School Districts Can Leverage Data in These Uncertain Times

This blog post extends some ideas offered in a spring 2020 post on district leaders' use of transparent data practices to promote accountability. This post describes ways leaders can use data to better support educators and students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Educators are grappling with unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, as of now, federal testing requirements have not been waived. Achievement scores from spring 2021 tests will be difficult to interpret without information about the conditions of student learning, leaving room for an accountability gap. Although state education agencies might have little ability to close the gap with additional data, local school districts have access to much richer data, which could be especially useful this year. School districts might use, analyze, and report their data for two key purposes: (1) identifying needs at the student, teacher, and school levels and (2) closing the accountability gap through increased transparency.

Relative to state agencies, districts and schools routinely have access to richer and more timely data on their students. Although in some sense states are now flying blind as a result of the pandemic, many districts and schools paradoxically have access to more data than in the past because so much of schooling by necessity moved online. Digital platforms automatically gather data daily as classes are conducted, students and teachers interact, and assignments are submitted. Most of these data are not in the form of standardized assessment results, but they nonetheless could be useful for identifying needs and for promoting accountability through transparency.

Much of the data that districts might access through their digital platforms could be described as opportunity-to-learn (OTL) data. OTL has been thrust into the forefront of the education discourse as the pandemic exposed longstanding educational inequities. These data provide a picture of the educational conditions and resources that students can access, and they include information on students' attendance and engagement. In a remote-schooling environment, districts need to know whether students show up, engage with their teachers and classmates, and submit assignments— which can all be gathered from the digital learning systems that schools already heavily rely on. And in many districts, the move online means they have better and more timely access to the results of formative and diagnostic assessments, allowing them to go beyond OTL to examine actual learning.

All of these data collected by digital learning platforms can serve to identify students who need attention. At aggregated levels, districts can use these data to identify particular subgroups at immediate risk as well as teachers and schools that are struggling and need additional support.

Aggregations can also promote accountability by making OTL more transparent. Educators tend to define accountability narrowly, and the indicators listed above are not traditionally used in high-stakes accountability systems that attach formal consequences to student outcomes—nor should they be. But districts have an opportunity this year to make their operations more public in order to hold themselves and their schools accountable to parents and families. One way districts can increase transparency is to publish a selection of OTL indicators frequently—or even weekly, like some districts now do to report COVID-19 infections. These metrics can help improve instruction and students' achievement outcomes. Key measures such as attendance, engagement, and formative assessment results—as well as actions that schools and districts take to improve those measures—can inform parents and increase public trust, which could be especially important in the absence of reliable state assessment data in the current environment.