Using Data to Expand Equitable Opportunities for Students

By David Stevens and Theresa Deussen
October 2016

Data collection and analyses can be enormously useful to districts that are seeking to improve educational equity. By examining data, we can get a closer look at students’ experiences and a more accurate a sense for how our systems are not yet serving all students, despite our best intentions.

When schools think of data use, it’s often for purposes such as grouping students for reading instruction. While gathering, analyzing and learning from data to support equity work has some similarities to these traditional uses, it’s important to play close attention to the differences. Based on our experience working with districts in Washington state that are committed to ensuring equitable educational experiences and outcomes for students, we offer three broad recommendations.

Use Data to Inform Deep Conversations

The real power of data use is unveiled when it is part of an iterative process of asking questions about what is happening in your district, where you are making progress and what still needs to be accomplished. Rather than using data to create a laundry list of “what’s going wrong with our schools” or to assign blame to a group or individual, it is more effective to look at equity-related data with the goal of building capacity for improvement. With this orientation, data are used to help district leadership or topic-specific teams decide where to focus their improvement efforts to best serve students.

Bringing data to conversations about equity, policy and practice is important because people often have perceptions that do not match what is actually happening in a school community. For example, administrators may think of discipline disparities as an issue that mainly affects boys, not realizing until they examine the data that African American girls are often disciplined more often than white or Asian boys and far more often than girls of any other racial background.

As an example of gathering and communicating about data to extend conversations about equity, one district we recently worked with as part of an equity data review chose to reach out to a wide range of parent and community stakeholders to collect data about their experiences and perceptions of local schools. The complied results first became part of a conversation among district leaders, then principals. Over time, results will be shared with an ever-widening circle of school and community groups so that everyone in the school community can participate in important conversations about improving equity.

Focus on What Matters Most

School districts generate an enormous amount of data. The question is, which data matter the most? Where should you put your limited time and resources?

We believe that districts can get the biggest benefit by intentionally focusing on high-leverage indicators—those that are highly predictive of outcomes that matter to us and that relate to aspects of students’ lives over which schools have some influence.

Examples of high-leverage indicators:

  • Absenteeism
  • Grades
  • Graduation and dropout
  • Participation in advanced high school coursework
  • Reading at grade level by Grade 3
  • Sense of feeling welcome in the school
  • Suspension and expulsion

Attendance is one example of a high-leverage indicator. Prior research demonstrates that chronic absenteeism is highly predictive of dropping out, which is why attendance matters. Furthermore, research shows that schools can work on certain key factors—such as strong student-teacher relationships, the relevance of coursework to students’ future goals and the coordination of instructional and programmatic systems—and through those efforts, boost attendance. If certain subgroups show higher rates of absenteeism, schools can look at how well current practices are ensuring that there are appropriate relationships, relevance and coordination in place for those students.

Plan for Transparent and Accessible Communication about Findings

Not everything revealed in an equity data review will be pretty. We know this because racial disparities in grade-level reading, discipline rates, graduation rates, and many other outcomes have repeatedly shown up across the nation. Districts that try to keep the results out of the media and away from public scrutiny risk far greater public dissatisfaction than those who share the data and simultaneously collaborate with the community on solutions. Transparency builds trust and sends the message that the district is willing to address the most difficult issues.

For this to be possible, results of equity data need to be easily interpreted by people without advanced degrees in statistics. Reports can be created by internal district analysts or external researchers, but either way, they need to be brief, accessible and focused on the most important findings. Reporting on everything only confuses people and often obscures the findings that could actually lead to meaningful changes in policy and practice. Districts should focus on reporting about high-leverage issues and about issues that are especially meaningful to the community.