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Online only: 3 Simple Steps to Help Districts Align Resources with Student Achievement


To be successful in today’s environment, a district must be able to analyze its students’ achievements. Just as a traditional business would pour over its financial statements to better understand which strategies worked and how performance measured up to expectations, so too should a school district analyze student performance and compare the results against goals, strategies, and expectations. Technology is empowering and legislation is dictating that schools collect, store, analyze, and report data on a more granular level than ever before. More and more districts are able to generate individualized insights that they can act on to provide the needed support or response to a specific student too.

As growth in available small-data continues, there are important big picture views a district should pursue in analyzing student performance and resource deployment. Setting the right goals and expectations is an important first step in the process. Understanding how other districts are preforming can provide some valuable context as goals and expectations are developed too. With the right data districts can start to answer important questions such as:

“What performance gaps exist between segments of my students (demographics, grade level, etc.)?”
“Are there trends in performance I should be aware of?”
“Are there other districts with a similar student profile, size, and access to resources that I can compare our results to?”
“How are other districts using their financial and human capital resources to achieve their results?

The steps outlined below are meant to provide one approach to using “big picture” data to increase one’s understanding of how resources and investments relate to overall student performance.

Find your Peers

There are any number of ways to determine which peers to use in a comparative analysis – and many can be very effective. Some are highly complex with many variables being considered and others more simplistic. The important idea is to use variables that make sense based on what you are analyzing. If you are looking for a more “apples-to-apples” comparison of data, you want to minimize the impact of any variable that is highly correlated to what you want to analyze. For example, if you are analyzing student performance and believe that a district’s percentage of economically disadvantaged students is correlated to the district’s overall performance, then you should select peers with a very similar percentage to control that variable.

Some notes on identifying your peer group:

  • Consider removing location from your analysis. Don’t get caught limiting yourself to the surrounding area and miss potentially important peers, data, and insights from other districts across the state. When analyzing student performance, it is important to consider the district demographics since this may impact how some resources are allocated or how districts are funded.
  • If you are looking for a simple model to start with, consider identifying districts with similar English-language learner and low-income enrollment combined with a financial metric such as operating expense per student. This may produce a basic who has students like mine and similar resources to spend on them peer group.
  • Although there is no magic answer for the right number of peer districts to include in your group, it is important that the number of peers allows for a valuable and significant analysis. Too few peers, and the data you gather may not provide enough perspective. Too many peers, and the insights can be harder to identify. To avoid including districts that don’t belong, try to identify 6 to 12 peers.
  • Consider a building-level peer group for each of your attendance centers. Although comparative financial data at the attendance center-level is often not readily available, there is enrollment, staffing, and student performance data that can be the basis for additional insights, particularly if you have attendance centers that vary significantly from each other.

Identify High and Low Performing Groups

Focusing solely on your district and summarized data, review building- and district-level performance trends, and look for groups that display increasing or decreasing performance. Review demographic, building, grade-level, and testing area splits. Following a cohort class as they move through grade-levels can also provide valuable insights. Looks for performance gaps that are closing or widening. Here is an example of a graph that shows a cohort’s performance over time.

Running these various scenarios can help you start to identify the lower and higher performing groups. Now that you have a sense of how your district is performing, the next step is to add some context by running a comparative analysis against your peers.

Identify the “High-Achievers” Within Your Peer Group

Having selected a peer group customized to analyze student performance, the next step is to gather data related to how your performance compares to others. Again, you should have access to summarized data that will allow you to compare results by demographic, building, grade-level, and testing area. The objective here is to identify any districts that consistently out-perform their peers. One approach would be to compare performance with a variable such as percent of economically disadvantaged students on a scatterplot as shown below. Consider the upper-right corner data points as reflecting higher achievement.

Analyze How “High-Achievers” Allocate Resources

Most states make state-wide data available, including data related to spending, staffing and compensation that you can use to take a closer look at your peer group. The critical question to ask is, “is there data pointing to unique ways the high-achieving peers are spending their financial and personnel resources that help to drive their higher student performance?”

Many state’s standard chart of accounts should allow you to evaluate spending per student in areas like Instruction, Instructional Supplies, Professional Development, Student Support Services, and other areas that may have a direct impact on overall student performance. Additionally, staffing levels in key instructional and student support positions should be evaluated. What are the student to staff ratios and staff profile (degree and experience level)?

The data available will dictate what areas and level of detail you can analyze. Here is an example chart comparing a Student to Teacher Position FTE ratio that might indicate whether high-achieving districts have a lower ratio than their peers.

At this point you are starting to either validate your current perspective and strategies, or developing new ones that might become the basis for changes in resource allocation. In either case, these are exciting and empowering moments for any district as they chart their path. Be sure to remember that comparative analysis should always be combined with anecdotal, environmental, or related information available to provide the best basis for decisions. Share and collaborate around your insights as much as possible.

Completing an analysis like this can be a “game-changer” for your district by providing new insights on your relative performance, validating existing knowledge and related strategies, and driving new, fact-based decisions on how to prioritize your effort, resources, and investment in your students. Every district should explore this approach and discuss it amongst the administrative leadership team.

This article brought to you by Forecast5 Analytics, Inc.

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