The Demonstrable Power of Data

November 18th, 2010

Category: News

The Demonstrable Power of Data


While at the Education Trust’s National Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, I had the opportunity to listen to numerous speakers from around the country engaged in positive reform efforts.  While my previous post (found here) focused on our current Partnership Zone efforts, I was able to see another incredible presentation on the power of data within schools and districts to drive reforms.


As I listen to education conversations around the country today, numerous people deride the use of data to drive decisions in our classrooms or claim that we are reducing our students to just numbers.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Data, without context and structure, would be just that, data.  However, if we can harness this information in constructive ways, by both recognizing our successes and carefully acting on our failures, we can really look at what’s working and what’s not and start moving the needle on student achievement.


Nicholas Montgomery, Senior Research Analyst for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, delved into troves of data outlining the critical importance of ninth-grade in determining whether or not a student graduates from high school.  In the presentation, Nicholas outlined the data points Chicago Public Schools (CPS) utilizes to determine whether or not a student is “on track” or “off track” for graduation – which includes a combination of factors such as absences, grades, course failures, and relationships/relevance.  Nicholas was able to slice and dice the data in numerous ways that, when looked at on the whole, provided a vivid picture of the importance of each of these factors in ninth grade in determining whether or not a student perseveres and graduates from high school.  Data points of interest include:

·         “On track” students scoring in the bottom quartile on eighth grade assessments had a 68% graduation rate while “off track” students scoring in the top quartile on the same assessment had graduation rates of 37% – demonstrating that student proficiency in eighth grade is not the only determinant of success;

·         85% of students who don’t fail a course their freshman year graduate compared to 55% who fail two, which only gets worse with each additional failure;

·         Virtually all students (93-98%, depending on GPA) with at least a B average will graduate in four years while less than half with GPAs below a 2.0 will complete high school; and

·         Students absent 0-4 days each semester have an 87% graduation rate while students with 5-9 absences have a 63% graduation rate.  


While I could go on and on about these interesting data points, I want to reflect on two points.  First, although the data itself was fascinating to a data geek like me, it literally means nothing unless this information is put into the hands of those capable of acting on it.  As a state, we collect enormous amounts of information on our students (attendance, proficiency scores, grades, who their teacher is each school year, etc.).  And our P-20 council released a report this year that highlights exactly what indicators we need to be tracking to make sure that students are on the path to graduation.  While there might be islands of excellence here and there, we currently do very little with this information on the whole.  One of our state’s Race to the Top commitments involves changing this paradigm by building a longitudinal data system (collecting and connecting information on kids in grades p-20) and putting it on a dashboard (secure internet program for parents, teachers, and principals) for approved stakeholders to access and act upon.  If done with fidelity, every stakeholder throughout Delaware will be given timely and actionable information upon which they can act to help all students succeed.  As the CPS data demonstrates, this information could be a critical starting point for our conversations on how to turn it around for these kids.    


Second, this presentation highlighted the need to think about how we structure our high schools in ways that meet the needs of all students and push them to persevere through graduation.  As the presentation showed, ninth grade is extremely critical in determining whether a student continues on through graduation.  And, with our 2008-2009 graduation rate hovering at 80%, we are still failing to address the needs of a significant percentage of our high school population.  Whether it is new high school models, targeted programs at specific sets of students, increased access to effective teachers, or enormous financial supports for increased flexibility/accountability at our persistently low-performing campuses, we need to think critically about how we leverage this data to ensure students are engaged in learning and motivated to graduate from college ready for college and/or a career.  Only then can we reach the goal outlined in our Race to the Top application of a graduation rate of 87% by 2013-2014 and 93% by 2016-2017. 


This post is part two of a two part series reflecting on takeaways from this year’s Education Trust’s National Conference.


Brett Turner



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