More Data Isn’t the Answer: A Case for Early Warning Indicator Systems in Education

With a national high school graduation rate hovering around 87 percent, too many of the nation’s students are still falling through the cracks of the education system and not meeting educational goals such as on-time graduation. Many are leaving high school without the skills necessary to be ready for college, career, and life. But there is a solution—and it definitely isn’t more data.

Better-utilized data makes the difference

Each year, mountains of data from disparate sources (e.g., student information systems, learning management systems) are studied and charts and graphs plotted. Historically, however, school districts have focused on lagging data such as graduation rates, standardized test scores, and final course grades. Lagging data confirms trends but does not easily inform investments. Standardized test scores and report cards, for example, arrive too late to be actionable.

In addition, it is very difficult at a district level to use final grades and test scores to figure out what exactly should change and why. Stakeholders may not have access to the data that they need to influence the quality of the instruction that students receive. Schools and districts have enough data to know that there is a problem, but they lack the right data at the right time to know when and how to address it.

In other words, evaluating how students are progressing has been art, science, and frankly a decent amount of guesswork. That formula has meant hours and hours from teachers to untangle what each student really needs to have a successful educational experience that prepares them for what’s next.

Meanwhile, data that could provide insight has been piling up. And with it, the need for a tool that uses real-time data for monitoring and enables schools to identify patterns, trends, and school effectiveness at keeping students on-track has grown.

Enter the early warning indicator system

Now, more than ever, districts across the country are implementing a growing practice of using early warning indicator systems (EWIS) to identify students who are likely to experience adverse outcomes early enough to provide targeted interventions and support to alter their trajectories. This knowledge puts power in the hands of the educators to strategically focus on the academic factors of success they can positively impact.

These systems draw on research showing that certain academic factors—early warning indicators—are typically predictors of academic failure. They’re warning signs that can identify students at risk of falling behind academically, dropping out of school, or experiencing other challenges.

The research regarding EWI systems grew out of a larger body of research on dropout prevention and recovery. Education researchers then examined patterns in longitudinal data and individual student records to identify the most highly predictive indicators of graduation outcomes. This analysis indicated the following key data points to be the strongest predictors of graduation outcomes: attendance, behavior, and course performance. Collectively, these indicators are referred to as the ABCs of early warnings.

But simply identifying indicators that put students at risk does nothing to mitigate their risk factors to help them achieve success. EWIS data can be harnessed by schools, districts, states, and support organizations around the country and be used to guide interventions and embed prevention strategies throughout schools. Accordingly, educators are now using early warning indicators beyond the ABCs to address not just on-time graduation and post-secondary success but also core and specific challenges such as:

  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Disproportionate discipline
  • Mastery of standards
  • Tiered interventions (e.g., MTSS)
  • Social and emotional well-being

Doing more with the data will impact student success

The real test for using early warning indicators exists at the school level, where teachers and other school staff interact directly with students. The best EWIS are characterized by features that enable the rapid identification of struggling students and redirecting their outcomes through interventions that are monitored and adjusted as needed.

When student data and predictive indicators are aligned with appropriate interventions, off-track students can be brought back on track—before it’s too late.

Our InsightLens system takes EWIS to the next level. Find out more



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