Leah Larson-Pulles is a 2016-17 MinnCAN Teacher Policy Fellow, and was a 2014-15 MinnCAN Blogging Fellow. Leah is a library media specialist at Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury.

Waiting for my students’ testing results to come back feels almost like my birthday…Well, okay, maybe not quite that exciting, but it still feels like a package with unknown contents that I can’t wait to see. My English Language Learner students took standardized tests back in April and I have been pestering my principal almost daily about when I can access their results.

Why am I so anxious to see the numbers? Not because I see them as a perfect measure of the quality of my teaching or my students’ learning, but because they help increase the quality of my work, by helping me determine what I should focus on for the remainder of the school year.

I am lucky in several respects. I work at a year-round school, so this data comes in time for me to put it to good use. The ACCESS test my students take provides multiple measures for each student and a good cross-section of language development. And neither my employment for next year nor my students’ ability to graduate hangs in the balance of their scores—rather, the results are meant to inform and improve my teaching. The data I am looking for is all that good data should be–timely and helpful.

But I didn’t always love student data. Part of the problem with the conversation about data is the conflation of data overall with standardized test scores. It was this misrepresentation that turned me entirely against data early in my teaching career, which began in Texas. When I taught middle school reading, one of the subjects measured by state mandated exams, testing was king. We spent months teaching practice passages, days administering mock tests and hours in staff development sessions reviewing the previous year’s test scores. The pressure that this approach created for students and teachers was overwhelming, and ultimately prompted me to pursue a different education job.

It took years for me to learn that my first impression of data was all wrong. Data means so much more than just a few end-of-the-year tests (which, as much as I hate, I realize serve an important role in ensuring that we don’t allow students of any demographic to fall through the cracks), and can actually help me to be a better teacher.

Data comes from student attendance, grades, observing students in class, homework, classwork and more. Cumulative files collect some of these artifacts over time, including family information, and are especially rich sources of input. Now that I have only 20 students, I carve out time early to go through these files. But even when I taught over 100 students, it was worth taking time to investigate my struggling learners through their educational records, searching out clues for where their school success was breaking down.

Extracting information from these sources paints for us educators a more complete picture of who our students are. Struggling secondary learners are often experts at hiding what they don’t know, and looking to the data is often the only way to uncover why they aren’t achieving the expected outcomes. It allows us to generalize across classes to identify our strengths and weaknesses as educators. Finally, student data keeps school systems and the education sector as a whole aware of, and focused on, the achievement gap for students of color.

It’s also possible—and I think important—to involve students in their own data, and to help them see data as fun. Infographics are great way to introduce students to data and teach them how to interpret and apply concepts that can later translate to information on their own learning.

For teachers and students alike, seeing data as a friend, rather than foe, can help us identify areas of strength and growth so that we can maximize the impact of our efforts.


Leah Delia Larson is a library media specialist at the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley and an ELL teacher at Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury. She started her career in education in 2001, and has taught everything from middle school ESL and special education in Texas to elementary school in Brooklyn. After teaching for several years, she moved back home to Minnesota to complete a degree in school library media, and went on to work for six wonderful years at Richfield Middle School before transitioning to her current roles. Leah is passionate about many things, particularly literacy, culturally competent curriculum and teaching, equity teacher training, increasing Latino student achievement and family engagement, bilingualism and social and emotional health.

The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.


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