Too much of a good thing – when data stops being useful

December 5, 2016
By: Becky St.John, Principal Consultant

I am very aware that, in our blogs, we are busy giving you lots of ideas about how you can analyse, evaluate and use your data in school. However, possibly the most important point is that we are not suggesting that you do it all, and we are not suggesting you do it all the time.

In March, GL Assessment published a report called ‘Smart Data’, which, amongst other things, looked at the attitudes of teachers to data.

Greg Watson, Chief Executive of GL Assessment, said the findings showed that teachers accepted that data was essential in the classroom but that far too much of it was superfluous or poorly applied. “Too much data is about control not improvement, too much of it is misused and far too much of it is pointless. As a consequence, an awful lot of the benefits of assessment are lost,” he said.

One of the key points of the report is: don’t over assess. Too much assessment adds to the teacher’s workload and takes time away from teaching but won’t produce any added insight.

It is very easy, in school, to assume that loads of data is a good idea. We recently worked with a school who update their assessment grades in Analytics on a weekly basis. Admittedly this does mean that the data is always up to date, but what is it actually then used for? The Heads of Department don’t have time to analyse the data this frequently, or use it to inform intervention or adjustment of activity in the classroom. Just having up-to-date data doesn’t benefit anybody, it is just adding to the workload of the teachers without any benefit to the students.

The recent study of workload commissioned by the government, ‘Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management’ backs up the GL Assessment findings. The report voices concern that ‘too often, the collection of data becomes an end in itself, divorced from the core purpose of improving outcomes for pupils, increasing the workload of teachers and school leaders for little discernible benefit.’

It follows up its concerns with the advice that ‘government, school leaders, and teachers, rather than starting with what is possible in collecting data, should challenge themselves on what data will be useful and for what purpose, and then collect the minimum amount of data required to help them evaluate how they are doing.’

They finish with five overarching principles that they feel should be applied to data activities in school:

  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication – ‘collect once, use many times’
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children.
  • The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed.
  • Be prepared to stop activity: do not assume that collection or analysis must continue just because it always has.
  • Be aware of workload issues: consider not just how long it will take, but whether that time could be better spent on other tasks.

The point is really just to only collect as much data as can actually be actively used to lead to action, intervention, and to benefit the students. Never collect any data just for the sake of it; on the whole, bear in mind that less is more.

There is one particular section in the report, in which it recommends the use of electronic tracking and analysis packages – with a caveat that I wholeheartedly support; that the electronic package should be used to support the process of data management, not define it. This is why our new Life After Levels system in SISRA Analytics has been developed to be so flexible, and can be used by any school with any assessment system and grade type. As the Workload Review Group quite rightly say, the tail should not wag the dog.

Read the original reports by clicking on the links below :

Smart Data – Study by GL Assessment

Eliminating unnecessary workload associated with data management – Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group

Becky St.John, Principal Consultant