Look for leading, not lagging, indicators in your student data

If you’re an economist, you use 3 kinds of indicators to monitor the health of the economy: leading, lagging and coincident. Leading indicators are best because they go up or down fairly reliably before the general economy does.

Educators need to focus more on leading indicators in student data rather than coincident and lagging indicators, say researchers from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Their study, In Search of Leading Indicators in Education, will help you make the slight, yet critical, shift in perspective when working with data.

Coincident indicators normally move in line with economic activity while lagging indicators trail behind.  Leading indicators predict an upcoming recession or how well a company is likely to perform in the last quarter.

In education, test scores are lagging indicators because they are the culmination or the net result of the education process and they can’t be changed unless you wait for the next round of testing.  During a walkthrough in a classroom, finding students on task in the classroom is a coincident indicator of teacher effectiveness and/or student engagement.  A leading indicator, on the other hand, is predictive and actionable.

One area where educators have started to use leading indicators is in reducing the dropout rate.  Researchers have found that academic performance as early as the 4th grade predicts the risk of dropping out.  When one urban school district looked for leading indicators of which students were at risk of dropping out it identified being over-age at one’s grade level with a low number of course credits as one indicator.

Another district went looking for leading indicators of college readiness.  School officials were troubled by the number of students  taking an accepted curricular path in high school who were still not prepared for college.  They looked at which students were performing well in courses that were important for college such as 8th-grade algebra.  This process took them earlier and earlier in students’ schooling.  They found that students who did well in 8th-grade algebra did well in 5th-grade math and the students who did well in 5th-grade math were the ones who were good readers in kindergarten.

“This led the district to focus more attention on early reading proficiency as the foundation for student success in both mathematics and English, and as the building blocks of college readiness,” the researchers write.

Part of the value of leading indicators is the process of searching for them.  It’s a shift in thinking about data and working with it.  The search tends to spur investigations into important and valuable outcomes.  It is a backward-tracking process that assumes a proactive and preventive approach .  It places the emphasis on actively exploring the factors that contribute to important outcomes rather than less productively focusing on the outcomes themselves.



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