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Doing Data Right with EL Education's Expanded View of Student Achievement

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    Alexis Margolin

EL Education School Designer Steven Levy explores the role of data in student success in his article "Who's in the Driver's Seat?" that appears in the November issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership.

Levy posits that "the problem isn't in data itself—it's in what we decide to measure." Below are excerpts from the piece:


“Let me confess right off, I don’t want to be driven by data! Any data set is a welcome passenger in the back seat for an occasional route confirmation. But I’ll have a love of learning or a passion for excellence in my driver’s seat. Data can serve those drivers only when 1) the data measure something more significant and enduring than discrete facts and skills, 2) they take into account the whole child, and 3) students own the process of collecting and analyzing data and set their own goals.

Once students leave school, they will rarely be measured by how well they score on a test. They’ll be judged on their character and the quality of their work. So wouldn’t it be great if there were a school where educators collected data on these things? There is not only a school, but a national network, EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), that expects students and schools to show evidence of their growth in terms of character and work quality. Here’s where I might invite data into the front seat.

An Expanded View
EL Education schools pursue an expanded view of student success that takes into account three distinct dimensions of achievement: mastery of knowledge, student character and engagement, and quality. They achieve exemplary results in each dimension and build systems that connect all three.

Mastery of Knowledge and Skills
This dimension of achievement reflects the traditional understanding of the purpose of school. Students demonstrate understanding, proficiency and application of a body of knowledge and skills within each discipline by solving problems, thinking critically, applying their learning to novel tasks, and 7 communicating clearly about complex ideas. EL Education schools expect all their students to do high-level thinking and work daily.

One unique thing about how these schools use data to improve achievement is the way students own the process of collecting data, analyzing data, and setting their own goals. In English language arts classes in EL Education schools, students keep records of their errors in reading and writing, analyze patterns, and set goals for improvement. Similarly, in math they track the kinds of errors they make on tests--computational mistakes, procedural errors, or errors resulting from conceptual misunderstandings. They use the data they collect to report on their progress during student-led conferences. Assessment isn’t
something done “to” students, but something they use to improve and demonstrate their own performance.

Character and Engagement
This dimension relates to noncognitive skills that support student success. Performance character includes the academic mindsets and habits of scholarship that students bring to learning (such as perseverance and organization). Relational character reflects how students work with others (for instance, do they show respect and collaborate?). Both aspects of character are essential and 8 interconnected.

Students in EL Education schools regularly reflect on their character, receive feedback from peers and teachers, and discuss the qualities necessary for success in school and life. They might explore together what it looks, sounds, and feels like when we show integrity or compassion. Just as Jenna’s class created an instrument to measure fear, students design learning targets and rubrics to monitor their progress and report on their growth and challenges.

I recently met with 6th graders from the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, New York, an EL Education Mentor School. These students set goals, collect data on how they’re meeting those goals, and reflect on progress weekly. Everyone calculates the percentage of homework assignments completed, both individually and the aggregate class. Students set such whole-class targets as “I can use systems to organize materials” and “I can make a plan to work through something that’s challenging for me.”

Each student tracks his or her progress on specific character goals. Ceanna wanted to get better at asking for help, so she recorded every time she asked peers or teachers for help. Madison wanted to let others have a chance to lead in small group work. After each group session, she rated herself on a 1-5 scale on how well she’d yielded the floor to others, and got feedback from her peers.

High-Quality Work
This dimension measures how expertly students transfer disciplinary knowledge and skills to authentic contexts. Can students use their knowledge to solve complex problems and create a body of work that shows craftsmanship, deep thinking, and creativity? To give evidence of their competence, EL Education students present their work to diverse audiences and communicate their thinking about it through writing and speaking.

EL Education is distinguished by an explicit focus on high-quality student work. One likely reason other schools avoid this topic is that it’s messy; quality in student products cannot be easily defined and quantified.

For years, we tried to identify criteria, but they were elusive and dependent on genre or format. Quality in a poem is different from quality in a lab report; an excellent museum exhibit differs from an excellent public service announcement. Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education and Steve Seidel, Director of the Arts in Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education have been working together with EL Education colleagues and schools for 25 years to collect, analyze, archive, and curate exemplary student work, and then use that work to improve teaching and learning (visit Models of Excellence). They articulated three attributes of high-quality work:

  • Complexity. When educators examine student work, they look for examples of higher-order thinking connected to big concepts that undergird or unite academic disciplines. They should see evidence that learners can transfer understanding to new contexts and see an issue from multiple perspectives. Complex work demands skill with complex texts and with evidence-based writing and speaking.
  • Craftsmanship. Well-crafted work is done with care and precision. Educators analyze attention to accuracy, detail, and beauty in conception and execution.
  • Authenticity. Authentic work demonstrates original thinking. It uses formats, standards, and sometimes audiences from the professional world, rather than school formats—and connects academic standards with real-world issues. Authentic work matters to students.

EL Education schools use these criteria to collect data about student work and inspire deep conversations among faculty about what high- quality work looks like and how to help kids produce it. They regularly examine student work schoolwide and create a body of evidence that describes how it has improved over time.

If you are a subscriber of ASCD's Educational Leadership, you can read the full piece here.