How to Really Use Data With Students

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How to really use data - Brilliant or Insane

Several years ago I co-taught a reading class for students, who were three or more grade levels below their peers, based on some data. Within the class, reading abilities ranged significantly.

Our “lowest” students were not progressing at an acceptable rate. Reflecting on several years of co-teaching, we were satisfied with our planning and daily instruction; we identified our traditional grading system as our biggest impediment.

While we weren’t ready to totally ditch grades, we made the decision to de-emphasize grading and to instead look at data with the students and have them grade themselves.

We began each vocabulary unit with an un-graded pre-test. Student scores on the pre-tests usually ranged from 0-50%.

In the past, we didn’t use the pre-test data for much except to determine where we should focus our instruction.

Now, after every pre-test, students set an individual learning target for each unit and devise a plan on how to get there. They then shared these plans with a classmate and with us.

Throughout each unit, students were tasked with constantly assessing their own knowledge, reflecting and re-formulating plans.

The Impact

At first, students struggled with setting goals before becoming comfortable with the process. Some students set the bar too high and others set the bar too low. With time, student goals became realistic, attainable and challenging.

Students also became more comfortable sharing their goals and strategies with classmates. As they became more supportive of each other, they strategized together and became more invested in each other’s progress.

Students charted their own progress. About two months into the school year, the students approached us with an idea: “Can we also set class goals?”

After a class discussion weighing the pros and cons, they voted to create a classwide goal system that included the following:

    • No one will score below (x-number)
    • The class will average (x-number)
    • X-number of students will achieve their individual goal

With this plan in place, students worked collaboratively to ensure the success of all. Students who met their goals worked with students who missed their goals, preparing them for a retest. Their sense of self dramatically improved as they were no longer being graded against a norm or each other but instead the focus was on personal growth.

rethinking assessment
Find out why

Throughout the term, we sat down with each student who would share their data with us. We used that data as a starting point for conversations focused on learning and growth and not grades. Students no longer asked, “What can I do to earn a B?” or “Am I passing?” Instead, students identified their own strengths and weaknesses and they shared how we, as teachers, could better support them.

Finally, through this process that they determined their vocabulary grades. Students who met their goals usually gave themselves A’s and Bs. Students who occasionally met their goals earned Cs.

Some students were exceptionally tough self-graders, but none played the system and gave artificially high grades.


    • Sharing data resulted in more informed instructional decisions around student learning and teaching practices
    • A collaborative, growth-mindset culture emerged
    • Students became more invested in their own learning
    • Students increased their own expectations
    • All students made tremendous progress, but the greatest growth compared to previous years occurred with the lowest students
    • Our instruction and, more important, student learning improved

The Challenge

Instead of using your test data to label students, try using the data to empower kids.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below and on Twitter at #TTOG (teachers throwing out grades).

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Reed Gillespie

Reed is a longtime educator and coach, who is passionate about progressive learning and 21st-century assessment practices. Read more of his work here. "I'm a co-moderator of #VAchat, a Twitter conversation for Virginia (and non-Virginian) educators that meets Monday's at 8 ET. Most importantly, I'm a father of four wonderful children and a couple grandchildren. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, sports and, of course, spending time with family."

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