I have a new roommate this fall—a first-year teacher eager to make a positive impact on her students and the Nashville community.  Watching her grapple with the complexity of student issues, school requirements and a steep learning curve, I find myself in a time machine transported back to my own first weeks of teaching.

When I walked into my initial round of school-based training in 2009, I encountered DSA, Running Records, DIBELS, STAR, ThinkLink and TCAP.  I quickly realized that our issue is not a dearth of data.  In fact, Tennessee possesses some of the best student and teacher data in the country.  What I discovered that first year is that the alphabet soup of tests is somewhat like panning for gold.  If you have the support, tools and determination to sift through the silt, you are likely to find valuable nuggets.  But if you leave student SCOREs on the reporting sheets, all you’ve got to show for yourself is wasted time administering tests, and, to continue the metaphor, a dirty river.

“How can I use DSA stage SCOREs to help plan an effective word study for each child?”  “How will ThinkLink SCOREs allow me to prioritize areas for improvement before TCAP?”  While we as a state begin using data to guide teacher evaluations, we should ensure that educators at every level have the training and resources necessary to make data-driven decisions.  It’s not just first-year teachers who have questions; often veteran teachers need support in applying the color-coded bars of a ThinkLink SCORE report to the practical task of differentiating lessons.

Schools approach this task in unique ways.  At Park Avenue Enhanced Option Elementary School this year, every reading teacher is meeting individually with the Literacy Coach in order to form a data-driven, long-term plan for his or her students.  Once I realized that Malachi* consistently misses questions requiring use of the “ai” sound, and Krystina is held back by her misunderstanding of inferences, I could target my instruction to meet their needs.  When DIBELS SCOREs are calculated and you discover that your nine-year-old students are reading on a Kindergarten level, there is no room left for casual instruction.  That is why I chose to stay in the classroom beyond my two-year commitment with Teach for America.  Analyzing quantitative indicators has deepened my urgency to help Tennessee students change the trajectory of their lives.

One way we can support our teachers is by assisting them in sifting through their data with a discerning eye. Too often well-meaning teachers find themselves drowning in paperwork and responsibilities and slip into teaching whatever comes next in the textbook rather than what their students most need.  Hats off to Park Ave and other schools who are helping teachers use data for what it’s worth: gold.

*Names have been changed.