Using student data effectively

Everything we do is for our students and using student data should be no different. School data coach and consultant Dr Selena Fisk highlights how using data improves our practice and gives us some practical ways to enhance student growth.

A few years ago I started teaching a Year 11 mathematics class where approximately one third of the students had failed Year 10 mathematics and none had achieved higher than a B+. I knew only a handful of the students from previous years, so I started the year a little apprehensively. On the first day, I talked with the class about some of their previous results, and I expressed my concern by sharing the ways they would need mathematics in the future. I asked students what had not worked for them in the past, and they started discussing strategies that worked best for them. We talked about the need to practice and develop fluency in mathematics (and consequently to do homework). I shared my hopes for them, and students seemed interested in improving. I walked away from the lesson having learned more about them as learners and determined to help them succeed.

Identifying goals and strategies

In the following lesson we talked about small and major shifts needed to improve, and I told them I would do whatever I could to support them. I sat with each student and discussed their goals, and we identified strategies they could use to improve. A number of students asked me to help them stay accountable by keeping an eye on their classwork and homework. I kept a record of their homework completion and in-class quizzes. I had regular conversations with them about the importance of practice. I allowed students to catch up on their homework if they had work or sporting commitments, and we regularly talked about their progress, and whether they were on-track to achieve them. At the end of the semester, all but one student passed, and three students achieved As.

This story exemplifies why we do what we do – we became teachers to have an impact on future generations, and to support young people to achieve their goals.

Using data enhances practice

As a teacher, I did this job for the students. And now, as a school data coach and consultant, I still do it for them. Despite what some may believe, using data and a student-centred approach are not mutually exclusive. Instead, data should be viewed as a way to support students to achieve their best, and be used to celebrate with them when they make progress. The use of data enhanced my practice as a teacher as it taught me more about the learners in my classroom and showed me what I needed to do to best support them. The gains that some of my students made throughout my teaching career would not have been possible without regular check-ins, tracking, and conversations. As a school data coach, I get to work with teachers and schools to share this same impact for our young people on a larger scale.

We can control the narrative of the data story in Australian schools, so that it is one of enhancing practice and supporting schools and students to thrive and flourish.

Using student data in Australian schools is more important than ever before, thanks in part to international comparisons such as PISA and TIMSS, the increase in the explicitness of the use of data and evidence in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (Education Council, 2019), the role of data in teacher performance assessments for pre-service teachers (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2015), the National School Improvement Tool (ACER, 2016), and research that demonstrates that evidence-informed practice has an impact on student outcomes (Brown et al., 2017; Department of Education and Training, 2017; Hattie, 2012). Unfortunately – and possibly compounded by negative school comparisons and data use by the media – some believe that using student data reduces humans to numbers. If a teacher was only forming their perception of student data from ATAR and NAPLAN comparisons in the media, it is understandable how they might come to this conclusion.

Reflecting on strengths and gaps in learning

Students should always be front and centre of our data use. Student data should be used to reflect on the strengths and gaps of individual learners, small groups in our classrooms, trends across a whole class, and/or across cohorts.

Data analysis and intervention at all of these levels looks really different, and some ‘interventions’ and shifts in practice may be relatively small. Some may lead to more significant changes. Either way, using student data should be about ensuring that the actions, informed by the evidence and data, support student growth. Some examples of ways that data might be used in schools include:

Analysis of trends at a cohort level in a standardised test might identify that a particular skill at the students’ year level (for example, Year 4, equivalent fractions) was particularly poor. The year level teaching team might decide to do a bit more digging into the types of equivalent fractions students are struggling with (through a short pre-test quiz), find extra time to work on equivalent fractions in class, and run a post-test at the end to see whether students have improved.

A teacher might identify through a standardised test or an in-class assessment that a class is not going well with a particular element of the curriculum (for example, in a Year 3 class, most students are incorrectly identifying audience and purpose when reading informative texts). The teacher might decide to incorporate more explicit teaching of these skills over the coming weeks.

A formative task (for example, in a Year 7 design technology class) might reveal that a small group of students are struggling to independently develop a specific skill. As a response to this evidence, the teacher might work with this small group for a portion of the next lesson to build this skill, then check in with each student individually over the coming week to monitor their progress.

A teacher may identify incomplete homework or classwork and intervene by first having a conversation with a student (for example, Year 9 mathematics, no homework completed for 10 days). The teacher might learn that the home situation has changed and work with the student to have the work completed so she does not fall behind. Alternatively, the teacher might follow up the conversation with the student by contacting home.

In all of these instances, shifts were made which benefited students, but were done so as a result of looking at student assessments and data. These shifts in practice were evidence-informed, as the teacher/s used the information gleaned from the assessment, considered what students needed, and adjusted their practice or approach accordingly.

Using data to celebrate growth

All the points above refer to shifts in practice to support students to bridge a gap identified in the data. However, when the data shows a student has improved, reached a personal best, or achieved excellent results, the data should be used to celebrate this. I have worked with schools that celebrated students on assembly who made the greatest amount of progress in school-based assessments, but also in PAT Reading and Mathematics assessments, and NAPLAN assessments. Growth in standardised testing and school-based results demonstrate a change in attitude, effort, or persistence.

The use of student data in schools is a current priority in Australia that is unlikely to disappear, and nor should it. Teachers might choose to focus on the negatives of data use, the comparative nature of numbers, and the endless skills, attributes and characteristics that data alone cannot tell us about our students. However, this attitude misses the opportunity to use the transformational power of data. We can control the narrative of the data story in Australian schools, so that it is one of enhancing practice and supporting schools and students to thrive and flourish. We are allowed to be infuriated when newspapers compare school NAPLAN and ATAR data, but we can also use data to benefit the people that motivated us to become teachers in the first place.


Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). (2016). National School Improvement Tool.

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). (2021). Trends in international mathematics and science study (TIMSS).

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). (2015). Accreditation of initial teacher education programs in Australia: Standards and procedures.

Brown, C., Schildkamp, K., & Hubers, M. D. (2017). Combining the best of two worlds: A conceptual proposal for evidence-informed school improvement. Educational Research, 59(2), 154-172.

Department of Education and Training. (2017). High impact teaching strategies: Excellence in teaching and learning. Victorian Government.

Education Council. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximising impact on learning. Routledge.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (n.d.). Programme for International Student Assessment.

Dr Selena Fisk is a School Data Coach and Principal Consultant at Aasha for Schools, working with leadership teams, middle leaders and teachers on data-informed strategies for schools.