Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

The pandemic upended “traditional schooling” and, in many aspects, what students saw as their role in their education.

Our longstanding education system continues to depend on students “just showing up to school.” But when schools went remote, “showing up” became something different. Students were responsible for their decision to engage, to log on, to be “present.”

While there were many negative aspects to the pandemic and immense an impact on society, one positive is the rise among students of agency over their own learning. This is a trend we must build upon.

The good news is that teachers, even before the pandemic, were already doing a tremendous amount of work to give their learners opportunities to “take an active role in shaping their future” as Larry Ferlazzo noted in a 2019 opinion piece in Education Week. Consider how much has improved since we were in school. Teachers are now creating learning systems that are increasingly personalized for each student. They’re leveraging rigorous content standards, adopting research-informed practices and considering their students’ social and emotional learning needs.

Teachers are increasingly having powerful goal-setting conversations with their students and using data to identify next steps together. Teachers are becoming more adept at giving effective feedback to their learners and helping them better understand their own needs. Their role has shifted to one that is more like a coach and the student is their most valuable player, and together, they form plans of action toward a greater outcome.

To build up and invest in student agency, there is one essential aspect: helping students (and their caregivers) understand and own their own data, from their grades, to test scores, to learning experiences, engagement and achievements. First, we must increase efforts to demystify the data for parents and caregivers so they have a clear picture of how their child is doing that is based on a holistic view — and not just on the latest test score. We must also reiterate to students that they are more than just a test score and that they have a voice.

When students understand their own data, their education becomes something that they are better able to participate in and ceases to be something being done to them.

Students are empowered to tell their story and can use lots of data points — to paint a picture of who they are and what they are capable of, of what they are good at, what they are working toward, what they love about school and what they need more support on. Students who feel they have ownership in their education are encouraged to lean in and embrace their own curiosity and can be more powerful advocates for themselves.

With better access to and knowledge of their data, a student might be able to tell a story about themselves post-pandemic that helps contextualize more traditional test scores:

  • I had a bad test score on this year’s summative math test, but here are the experiences I have had and the other data/scores/grades I have to show you why I am ready for this next opportunity or challenge. You can see that before the pandemic I was achieving at a high level and was growing in my math scores for a long time, and that I’ve been taking more challenging coursework and passing every year. This one score doesn’t define me as a mathematical thinker. Or,
  • I can show you how I am resilient. This year in my data was the pandemic, and while my test scores went down, you can see that I completed all my classes, turned in all my work and I did all that while sharing a single computer with my three siblings. I am capable and ready to face challenges.

Empowered students have the ability to set goals, see where they are headed, make plans to reach their goals and are better able to speak to their strengths. Empowered students can be advocates for themselves. And when students have agency over their data, they can see a comprehensive view of where the pieces come together and can see their value beyond being a single score.

Of course, all this means that we need to present data to students in a way that they can understand — without all the eduspeak and statistical jargon that often makes data feel inaccessible. And when students understand their data, they are empowered to have meaningful conversations about their goals and their learning with their support systems — parents, tutors, teachers and mentors. This helps us all lean in and support all students to achieve their potential.


Abby Javurek is vice president of future impact and growth and Jacob Bruno is senior vice president of professional learning at NWEA, not-for-profit, research and educational services provider serving K-12 students.

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