Question: What activity is done by most teachers in the United States, but has almost no evidence of effectiveness in raising student test scores?
Answer: Analyzing student assessment data.
This practice arose from a simple logic: To improve student outcomes, teachers should study students’ prior test performance, learn what students struggle with, and then adjust the curriculum or offer students remediation where necessary. By addressing the weaknesses revealed by the test results, overall student achievement would improve.
Yet understanding students’ weaknesses is only useful if it changes practice. And, to date, evidence suggests that it does not change practice — or student outcomes. Focusing on the problem has likely distracted us from focusing on the solution.
With the birth of large-scale state assessments and widening data availability in the 1990s, school leaders and teachers could access information on student performance that was common across schools and classrooms. Many schools also instituted standardized “interim” assessments, claiming that this periodic, low-stakes testing could help teachers identify difficult content and struggling students before the state assessment, giving both teachers and students a chance to catch up. Over time, educational testing and data companies including the Achievement Network, NWEA, and McGraw-Hill’s Acuity began to sell interim assessments to schools and states, making such assessments (and their cousins, test-item banks that support formative assessment) a billion-dollar business.
Currently, a large number of teachers report they regularly get together to analyze student assessment results. In a 2016 survey by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, 94 percent of a nationally representative sample of middle school math teachers reported that they analyzed student performance on tests in the prior year, and 15 percent said they spent over 40 hours that year engaged in this activity. Case-study research suggests that in many Title 1 schools, this activity is a cornerstone of teachers’ weekly or monthly collaborative time.