Data seems to be one of those educational buzz words that has been swinging on the pendulum just like many other educational topics.
When I first began teaching 12 years ago, we had data walls, data folders, data charts, and data talks. In those early years, I taught 4th-grade departmental math. It was easy to collect and analyze data and use that data to inform my instruction. It was easy to assess whether a student knew how to multiply two-digit numbers or find the area of a rectangle. And it was easy to use that instruction to plan additional days of reteaching the entire class or planning small group instruction for the few students who had not quite mastered the skill.
As an English language arts teacher, I found data much more difficult to collect. Data is necessary, but for many, it has become a dreaded four-letter word. Language arts standards, like my Indiana standard below, are so packed with skills, collecting data can be time-consuming, overwhelming, and many times irrelevant.
For the past several years improving data collection has been a personal goal for me because I knew this was a weakness. I wanted data that was relevant, easy to collect, and could be used to make instructional decisions. I wanted to be able to show my administrator who was making progress, who was not, and what I was doing about it. But that goal has not been an easy one to reach.
It wasn’t until this past summer when I attended a workshop with Kate Roberts, that the data light bulb came on. Her presentation made so much sense, and I left wondering why I hadn’t used this approach to collecting data before now?
In Kate’s book about using whole-class novels, A Novel Approach, she advises teachers to give students a reading assessment before diving into the unit to identify skills that need to be taught or improved upon during the unit. I gave a similar assessment at the beginning of the year as a baseline based on these questions from Kate’s book:
- What are the three most important moments in this story, and why?
- Analyze the main character.
- What theme does the author develop in this story?
- What craft moves do you notice the author using and what is their purpose?
After scoring the assessment, I completed a grid shown below. This quickly gave me a snapshot of the skill level of each class and let me know which students needed additional instruction or who could benefit from small group instruction. Kate scores them 1-3, but I changed it to 0-3, as I had many students who did not know how to do some of the skills. As you can see from the grid, my students did not know the term “writer’s craft,” and that skill will now become more of a focus in my instruction.
When analyzing characters, most students were able to give me a trait, but could not support that claim. Interpreting theme had similar results. They could give me a theme but had no idea of how it was developed through the story.
After giving the baseline, I told my students these four skills needed to be mastered by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I won’t teach other skills; these are just the ones that I will assess and track throughout the year.
Students will work on these skills throughout the entire school year. I have a spreadsheet where I track each student’s progress, and they have one where they track their individual progress.
I like this assessment for data collection for many reasons:
- Simplicity – This assessment is quick and easy to administer, as it can be done in one class period. Scoring is easy when you sort student responses according to patterns that you see. Kate compares it to dealing out a deck of cards, each pile being beginning, intermediate, and advanced. These piles become a starting point and eventual guide for instruction.
- Versatility – Students need to be able to demonstrate what they can do with these skills, so matching them to a text they can read independently is important. The four questions work well with almost any fiction text. I used the baseline with a read-aloud, thus making the text accessible to all students. I have also used the assessment with their independent books, and I plan to use it with their book club selections by the end of the semester.
- Relevancy – Each Common Core Standard is packed with skills. The four questions in the assessment are general, yet can measure the standards as they are unpacked. The skills assessed are what we notice and do automatically as adult readers, so teaching students these skills is showing them the relevancy of learning them.
I don’t think data has quite the educational buzz that it used to, and I still think collecting reading and writing data is difficult. But after working with Kate and looking at data in a new way this year, I now know that data doesn’t have to be a dreaded four-letter word anymore.
Leigh Anne Eck is a 6th grade ELA teacher in southern Indiana and is anxiously awaiting the learning to be done at NCTE in Baltimore. She hopes to meet many of her online friends in person.