Using COVID Relief for Student Recovery: Data-Driven Instruction & Assessments

By Corinn O’Brien
Vice President of Policy, A+ Education Partnership


Over $3 billion is coming to Alabama schools from the three rounds of federal funding in order to address the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and districts have an unprecedented amount of money at their disposal to improve student outcomes, and we are keeping families, communities, and decision-makers up-to-date on best practices and tracking district spending priorities. This is part 5 of our COVID School Spending series, and the first blog on addressing learning loss. 

Introduction to Addressing Learning Loss

Today’s blog is the beginning of our team’s exploration of the best investments & strategies that school districts can utilize to address student learning loss.  It’s important to note that all districts have already submitted their ARP ESSER plans to the ALSDE at this point.  However, school districts are able to re-evaluate their plans and adjust the ways that they are spending their ARP ESSER funds at any time and they are required to do so every six months. Throughout this mini-series on addressing learning loss, our team will share evidence-based strategies, high-quality resources, and professional development options that we have curated, both free and available for purchase. 

While it may seem that this is primarily written for educators and district leaders, this information is important for students and families, too! If you see an idea or strategy that you want to see implemented in your school, bring it to your school district leadership and ask them to consider it when they are revising their ARP ESSER plans.

Addressing Learning Loss through Data-Driven Instruction

Students have now endured multiple school years of disrupted learning, and it has likely been difficult and overwhelming for educators to assess where their students are academically. However, this is a critical step for recovery. We must understand what students have learned and what they have not yet learned in order to prioritize and tailor our academic plans for the year.  

This is the exact challenge that the ARP ESSER funding is here to address. Investing in professional development on data-driven instruction and assessment tools are both excellent strategies for addressing learning loss.  Before we jump into these topics, I want to make sure I address something that you are likely already thinking. When you read the words, “data-driven” and “assessment,” did you immediately think of standardized tests? Or long days of testing?  This is not at all what I mean. So, let’s talk about data-driven instruction first.

What is Data-Driven Instruction?

There are lots of different names for data-driven instruction (i.e. responsive teaching, student work analysis, etc.), but what it boils down to is the process of an educator figuring out what students have learned, what they are still struggling with, and how to adjust their teaching based on this information. “Data” in this case is simply information teachers gather from their students about their students’ current level of understanding. Excellent teachers are constantly doing this to ensure that kids are learning what they need to in their classrooms to be ready to move onto the next topic, unit, and grade.  Data from standardized tests can be helpful for teachers, but often it isn’t timely enough since results are usually released many months after students have completed the test.  This is why data-driven instruction can really make a difference.   

This can look like a teacher asking a question at the beginning of class in a bellringer to quickly diagnose what students remembered (or didn’t remember) from a previous lesson. Or using a strategy to check for understanding during a lesson. Once a teacher has these data points, then they are able to determine how to adjust their lesson in the moment to ensure students are successful.

Both of these data points are formative assessments, which is just a fancy way of describing how teachers determine what students have learned and what they have not yet learned.  Some formative assessments are questions and “checks for understanding”, like we discuss above, and some are more formal assessments, like daily exit tickets, quizzes, or interim assessments, given periodically to accomplish the same goal. In a recent article about addressing learning loss, Education Week goes into greater depth on data-driven instruction, which they call “test by teaching,” linked here.  

Professional Development Resources on Data-Driven Instruction

If you are a district or school leader that is interested in training your team on the fundamental practices of data-driven instruction, here are a few high-quality options for professional development:

  • “Driven by Data 2.0” by Paul Bambrick-Santayo is an excellent book to purchase for your team and it includes PD materials and exemplar videos of teachers using principles of data-driven instruction in action, linked here.
  • Relay Graduate School of Education is offering “Accelerating Student Success: Strategies to Address Interrupted Learning”, which is a series of online workshops available for individual teachers, schools, or districts, linked here.  
  • Instructional Partners is a non-profit focused on partnering with districts and states to improve learning outcomes for all students and they provide excellent professional development on a multitude of topics, including data-driven instruction. Learn more about how to partner with them here.
  • You can find free PD resources on Data-Driven Instruction from EngageNY, linked here.

High-Quality Assessments

Data-driven instruction goes beyond using data in the moment. It also includes analyzing student work and data from more formal formative assessments, like exit tickets (which are short assessments with few important questions given at the end of the lesson)  or interim assessments (which are longer assessments on a variety of topics usually given every nine weeks). In order for this data from these assessments to be useful for teachers, the questions must be high-quality and aligned to grade-level content. If you are interested in reading more about what makes an assessment high quality, check out this report from Stanford, linked here

Writing great assessments or assessment questions from scratch is very difficult and time-consuming.  So, purchasing a suite of high-quality, aligned assessments or an assessment item bank that teachers can use to create their own is an excellent investment of ARP ESSER funding.  

Here are a few options for high-quality assessment tools:

  • The Achievement Network is a high-quality assessment system that provides a full suite of support, including interim assessments, job-embedded coaching, and professional development. Learn more about how to work with the Achievement Network here.  
  • The Ongoing Assessment Program (OGAP) is a high-quality assessment system for mathematics and it includes an assessment item bank and professional development. Learn more about how to become an OGAP school here.
  • If you are looking for a high-quality, free assessment item bank, check out Student Achievement Partners (linked here for math and ELA), New Meridian Resource Center (linked here), or (linked here). 

So What: Takeaways for Families, Communities, & Educators

Each stakeholder in student learning should be thinking about how they can use data to drive student learning. Here are some questions to consider:

Questions for Parents: 

  • How are schools keeping track of my child’s learning? 
  • What are educators doing to adapt teaching strategies based on my student’s needs?
  • What assessment data do I have access to that will allow me to support their learning outside of the classroom?  

Questions for Educators: 

  • How am I currently using formative assessments to adjust my instruction? Are there any resources I need to improve this?
  • How can I partner with families to share data on students’ unfinished learning?
  • What resources are available to create high-quality & aligned assessments?