The beginning of the school year is probably right around the corner for you. You might be thinking about how you want to decorate your classroom (here’s a great post on why it doesn’t need to be Pinterest-worthy), looking for back-to-school activities and getting-to-know-you ideas, and making copies of your syllabus. You may meet with your school and/or department prior to that first day, and then proceed to put your classroom back together after summer cleaning. You might even be lamenting the end of summer while simultaneously being excited for the possibilities of the year.
What you’re probably not thinking about just yet is collecting data. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are pitfalls to avoiding data. While I know you have plenty on your mind at this point, the beginning of the school year is the best time to start data collection in order for you to best differentiate in your classroom. A little work in the beginning will pay dividends in terms of student achievement and growth.
The data you need
So what type of data should you collect? Here are the 5 types of data that will help you get a clearer picture of who your students are and with what they come equipped.
Most schools have some sort of student information system (SIS) that collects information about students, such as their address, contact information, language spoken at home, if they’re an English Language Learner (ELLs), medical alerts, if they have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and whether or not they qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. This information tells me a few things.
- I always need to be aware of students with medical alerts so that I’m not thrown off-guard during an incident and so that I can have a plan of action in case of emergency.
- Since I know that I’m co-teaching with a Special Education teacher, I can see who has IEPs.
- Knowing who my ELLs are helps me create extra scaffolds and supports for those students.
- I can see if any of my students are in a home where no English is spoken, and prepare myself with a translator should I need to send an email or call them.
- Students on free-and-reduced lunch may not be able to acquire all of the materials for the class, so I can properly plan for that.
2. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans
I already mentioned IEPs in the previous paragraph, but it’s important to have actual copies of them on hand. I used to receive paper copies, but my district is now using Special Education Information System (SEIS), so I receive them via PDF. Either way, it’s important that I refer to it often to ensure that the student is progressing towards his or her goals in my subject area. Since a student with an IEP has one for a reason, I work closely with that student’s case carrier and give them copies of student work and grades. If you’re not aware of the specific disability and its characteristics, you can easily mistaken distracted behavior as being off-task, or an unwillingness to work as laziness or defiance. Examining your students’ IEPs will bring to light the way in which their disability impacts how they process information.
I also keep records of 504 plans, which are more about accommodations rather than special instruction. For me these have typically been physical accommodations, such as preferential seating, needing instructions repeated and/or written, or extra time for assignments.
Both of these are legal documents, therefore as a teacher you can’t just gloss over them. It’s not uncommon for a parent to complain and/or take legal action when they feel that a teacher isn’t holding up their end of the IEP or 504. Beyond the legal ramifications, it’s also just prudent to take these students’ extra needs into consideration to create an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment.
You can read more about this in my post about what to do with IEPs.
3. Lexile scores
As an English Language Arts teacher, it’s important for me to know my students’ Lexile scores as soon as possible. A student’s reading level affects their ability to access grade-level materials, therefore I need to know what scaffolds are necessary in order for me to maintain rigor in my classroom. I won’t water down the text or alter it – I simply give struggling students extra guidance so that they can comprehend it.
It’s important to stress that all subject area teachers need to know their students’ Lexile scores! If a student can’t read at grade level, they most likely can’t write at grade level. If a student in 7th grade is reading at a 3rd grade level, and their math teacher is using grade-level math vocabulary, there’s a good chance that the student may not understand the material. That same student may also have difficulty remembering scientific terminology and/or names of events and people in history.
Literacy is not just about reading and writing in English, therefore all teachers should closely examine these scores and create appropriate scaffolds and activities to help their students.
I did a video post where I explained how I use Lexile scores to make educational decisions.
4. Pre-assessment scores
Most of my colleagues give some sort of pre-assessment at the beginning of the year to determine the skills and knowledge of their students. I am no different. I desperately need to know how my students write so that I can set an appropriate launching point and methodically move them through my curriculum. I slowly start in the beginning so that I can go faster later, and this practice has served me well.
What type of pre-assessments can you give? For English, my department first has students read a text together as a class and discuss it in groups. We want to ensure that they fully understand the content because we’re measuring their writing, not reading level (see Lexile level above). Next, we have them answer a writing prompt that requires them to use evidence from the text to support their claim. We grade these using a standards-based rubric, but we only assess a few standards at a time. From there, we progress based the data we’ve collected.
Again, these scores don’t determine WHAT I teach – it determines HOW I teach.
5. Standardized test scores
Are you surprised that this is last? In my state, our students take the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). These scores give me a general idea of how my students perform on a standardized test, but honestly I just use them as a general reference. It is just a small part of the bigger puzzle that I try to assemble for each student. With a growing movement by parents to opt their student out of these types of tests, I’m finding that I shouldn’t rely on this data set for too much information.
Who and what are the gatekeepers of data?
The next step is finding out who are the gatekeepers of this information.
1. Student Information System (SIS)
Does your school have an SIS? If you take attendance online, you may be able to also find the demographic information in the same place. In my district, we use Infinite Campus for creating our master schedule, taking attendance, and as our SIS. Additionally, we have Illuminate Education, which creates demographic reports, and also allows us to track data on common assessments across the district.
2. Cumulative files
If your SIS doesn’t provide all of the information you need, you may need to delve into students’ cum files. Knowing that a student is in foster care or is designated as homeless will help you understand why he or she shows up without their homework done, their binder, pencil, etc.
You don’t necessarily need to wade through all of your students’ files, but most likely the ones that are red flags to you for whatever reason.
3. Your site integrated services or intervention specialist
Every state is in charge of how its federal education funding is spent. The state department of education also determines which local entities are in charge of deciding how that money is spent, and what accountability measures are taken to ensure it goes towards student achievement. At the district level, someone is in charge of that, and if your district is larger, you probably have someone at your site who is responsible for monitoring students and coordinating services with that money.
Find out who this person is. They are most likely data specialists and can provide you with various spreadsheets containing valuable information about your students. In the beginning of the year, they may be busy or not respond as quickly as you’d like, but keep on top of it. They are a tremendous resource, and if you forge a relationship with them and let them know that their work is of value to you, it may be easier to get data in the future.
4. Special Education Teachers and Case Carriers
Early on in my career I befriended Special Ed teachers. Not only do I have tremendous respect for the work they do, I know that they have a wealth of knowledge. Honestly, everything I know about differentiation and scaffolding I learned from the Special Ed teachers in my schools and from reading Special Ed publications and blogs. If you want to learn behavior modification strategies, talk to them. If you want to know how to control multiple students with IEPs in your class, talk to them.
Additionally, you need to work with them to acquire your students’ IEPs. Sometimes the accommodations listed on an IEP are outdated, and your students’ case carrier can give you some additional tips on how to best work with certain students. Most schools have either a push-in or pull-out method for students with IEPs, so either way, having a strong relationship with Special Ed teachers will be mutually beneficial.
5. School counselors
School counselors are privy to information that may not be disseminated to all teachers for various reasons. If there’s a student that is on your radar, reach out to that student’s counselor for more insight. They can’t always send out sensitive information on paper or via email, however they can probably discuss certain circumstances and work with you to support your students. I seek them out to find out which of my students are in foster care or are designated homeless, as well as letting them know when I see students exhibit unusual behaviors such as not showering, wearing the same clothes multiple days in a row, falling asleep in class, or seeming more emotional than normal.
As with Special Ed teachers and case carriers, having a rapport with the counselors can assist with collecting data to guide your teaching and interactions with your students.
First, research who has the 5 types of data that you need and reach out to them. Below I’ve included a simple worksheet for gathering this information. Knowing now who the gatekeepers of data are will make it easier to request it in the future.
Then come back for my next post on how read and interpret IEPs.
This post is part of my multi-part series on how to analyze data in a meaningful way. Check out my previous posts to get the most out of your data!
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