Formative Assessment (Part 3): Data Walls for Collaboration and Dialogue

This is part three in my series on formative assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my school’s change journey.

Some of the most helpful and transformative tools for primary educators have to be the NSW Literacy and Numeracy Continuums. They unpack areas of the English and Mathematics curriculum, breaking them into small, hierarchical steps which we can use to pin point students’ current level of skill and set goals that will move learning forward.

This year we’ve placed the continuums at the centre of our planning, implementing some high impact strategies that have already boosted the learning of our students and increased the effectiveness of our teaching. I’ll unpack these strategies in a series of posts. Today’s is about data walls.

I’ve heard some terrible stories about data walls: stories where they’ve been used to judge the effectiveness of teachers, evaluating them according to how rapidly their students progress. I’ve also heard of them being used in a way that publicly rank students, turning their education into a race, celebrating the winners and humiliating the losers.

Our data wall serves neither of those ends. Displayed in a  private corridor that only staff can access, ours is  a tool that we use to set learning goals for our students, identify students who may need extra support, allocate resources appropriately, track student progress and stimulate professional dialogue.

It  plots every child in our school along the Literacy Continuum and provides us with an instant visual representation of where our students are at.


Along the top of our data wall, we placed the continuum clusters. These were colour coded according to the year level we expect to be working in that cluster. For example, the headings for clusters that Year 4 students are expected to be working at were in Yellow. The Year 4 students’ names were also printed on yellow paper. At a glance we could see that most of our Year 4 students were working at their expected level. But we could also see outliers – we could immediately identify that some students were working not just ahead or behind their expected level, but that some were working years ahead or behind.

Presenting the information visually immediately triggered professional dialogue.

One year group of teachers, viewing the spread across the grade, immediately identified that their judgement was not consistent. Some students with known difficulties, appeared to be achieving at the same level, or even ahead of students  in their grade whom we knew were actually very high achieving. Upon seeing this, the teaching team started discussing what formed their judgements and questioning what achievement would  look like at different points of the continuum. They reexamined the curriculum and their expectations.

Professional dialogue also sprang up between our support teachers and class teachers. Our learning support and  EAL/D teachers noticed straight away that they did not agree with the placement of some students. They work with students in different contexts from the class teachers and therefore see different evidence of their learning. This led to productive discussions between the team of teachers who work with students. More view points and evidence was considered, some placements were altered and the teachers walked away with a much deeper understanding of their students.

We quickly found information that influenced the direction of our teaching and learning programs. In one of our early grades, we noticed that while most of our students were tracking well against a most reading indicators, such as phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and  fluency, a significant group were below the expected level for phonemic awareness. Upon seeing this, grade team decided to target phonemic awareness in their programs for the term to bring all students up to an improved level of proficiency.

We were also able to quickly prioritise resources and support. Our EAL/D funding was cut in half at the beginning of 2015 – reducing our teacher allocation from 4 days  to 2 days. We had to make changes to the way in which we supported these students. The data wall helped us to identify those EAL/D students with the highest need of support and to develop learning goals and strategies to move them forward.

One of the most significant things about the dialogue sparked by our data wall was that it was entirely teacher driven. Instead of the executive team having to MAKE the conversations happen, or CONVINCE the teachers that we needed to re-examine our practices around, for example,  phonemic awareness, our teachers came to these conclusions themselves. The collaboration and dialogue was spontaneous, unplanned and grew out of having data displayed in such a clear, visual manner. There was immediate buy in.

Of course, our work with the continuums and our data wall didn’t stop with those initial conversations. Since then, we’ve used them to make some simple, but exciting changes to the way we teach. I’ll write about these, and how they fit with our formative assessment process in a future post.

Other Posts in this series:

Formative Assessment (Part 2) and a case for differentiated instruction

Formative Assessment (Part 1) Introduction


2 thoughts on “Formative Assessment (Part 3): Data Walls for Collaboration and Dialogue

  1. Placing physical, visual data like this anywhere in our school would worry me. I would be concerned that the data might be inadvertently viewed by students or parents.
    That being said – seems to be a very useful tool judging from your experience.

    • Yes, that’s a very valid concern. We had to do a risk assessment process. In our case, we realised we could minimise but not entirely eliminate the risk of unauthorised personnel viewing the wall. However, we decided that the benefits of the wall were significant enough to go ahead. In our case, the likelihood of a student or parent entering that part of the school is extremely low as its in a secure building and in an area that students and visitors don’t enter. We certainly have considered options like installing a blind in front of it that would only be raised when viewing the wall.

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