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Why Use Baseline Data to Drive Decisions in K-12 Education?

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Table of Contents

What you need to know about baseline data
How baseline data drives instruction in the classroom
Baseline data in Special Education
Should baseline data be used for mental and behavioral health support?
Data is the evidence we depend on
Learn more about using baseline data

Believe it or not, data wasn’t always a factor in decision making in schools. A lot of decisions were made subjectively. Lacking efficient digital records, educators didn’t have the data needed to make objective decisions. Fortunately, teaching has evolved into a science based on facts. As more and more data has become available with the increased use of digital tools, research highlights the benefits of making objective decisions based on numbers.

Baseline data serves as the foundation or starting place. Educators need to understand how to collect and use that baseline data to monitor progress and measure increases in student achievement or changes in behavior.

What you need to know about baseline data

What is baseline data? It’s all about the evidence. Baseline data provides teachers with evidence of what students know or can do and still need to learn. It must be something that can be quantified or counted in some way. The most common ways to collect data include:

  • Percent accuracy: percentage of correct responses on an assessment
  • Frequency: number of times a behavior occurs
  • Duration: how long an event continues
  • Rate: number of behaviors during a set amount of time
  • Interval data: samples counted during specified time intervals

Baseline data can be collected on any student. Typically, it is used to measure progress of students who are experiencing learning or behavioral difficulties, are English learners, have missed instruction over a period of time, or may simply need additional support.

How baseline data drives instruction in the classroom

Because students have diverse needs, schools use a tiered pyramid system to provide additional instruction to those who need more support. The first tier, the base, is core instruction for the entire class. Tier 2 includes students who may need targeted instruction in specific skills, and Tier 3 is reserved for small groups of students requiring intensive instruction.

Two models serve as the basic framework for intervention. Response to Intervention (RTI) is focused primarily on academic progress. A more comprehensive design, Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS), expands to social-emotional areas of concern.

In most schools, it’s common practice to hire an interventionist or train teachers in best practices for intervention during the school day. Within tiers 1, 2, and 3, teachers and specialists rely on diagnostic screeners to group students with similar skill levels into small groups.

Teachers are well aware of how important it is to monitor student progress and determine which interventions to implement. But sometimes it’s challenging to sift through all the information available and know what data to use. Jim Wright, RTI/MTSS expert, created a guide to help teachers ask the right questions, collect useful data, and decide how to use it to monitor student progress.

The guide breaks down the decision-making process into clarifying steps.

  1. What specific skills or behaviors does the student find challenging?
  2. What is the student’s baseline or starting point?
  3. What outcome goal would define success for this student?
  4. Has the student reached the goal?

As soon as the teacher identifies the baseline data to use as the starting place and determines the end goal, it’s time to decide how to get to the finish line. To make sure students stay on the right track, teachers will place them in flexible small groups and monitor progress along the way.

How students are grouped and which tools are used to monitor progress will significantly affect the outcome. Since we’re talking about data, understanding the science of teaching makes a difference. It matters. Jim Wright has developed an 8-step process an interventionist can use to implement intervention plans confidently and effectively.

Baseline data in Special Education

The first step in writing an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for a student is to start with baseline data. In an IEP, that’s called a statement of Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP for short). With a clear starting place, teachers can set measurable goals using specific examples of student behaviors. They must be observable and demonstrate progress.

Collecting data about students in a Special Education program can be a little more complicated because it comes from multiple sources beyond the classroom teacher or teachers. Students may receive instruction from the regular education teacher or a trained special education teacher and multiple related service providers. Depending on the IEP, the list could include speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, or various other specialists.

Progress must be monitored in every area a student receives services for, so the data will look different from each provider. At its core, the data is used to

  • Guide instruction
  • Make decisions about student growth
  • Communicate progress on IEP goals
  • Determine effectiveness of providers and programs

It’s helpful to have standardized procedures and tools for collecting, reporting, and analyzing all the data available to monitor student progress. Most school districts use software programs to track, report, and manage compliance requirements.

Should baseline data be used for mental and behavioral health support?

Schools can’t afford to overlook the importance of mental and behavioral health as a factor of student success. The experience of educating children during the pandemic may have been the catalyst that launched mental health into the spotlight.  In a way, that’s a positive situation. Parents, teachers, counselors, nurses, and administrators — among others — recognize the urgent need to take action.

Fortunately, there are tools available to schools that will help expand their support of student health beyond what a school nurse can provide. Mental health interventions do not need to be limited to students with IEPs, but should be available to any student.

It starts with collecting baseline data on all students. When an MTSS model (Multi-tiered System of Support) is implemented with fidelity, students are screened for academic and behavioral barriers to learning. That data forms the baseline for interventions and progress monitoring to address academic or behavioral areas of concern and improve student achievement.

As teachers develop interventions for academic problems, the wellness team made up of school nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists steps in to support students’ health needs — physical, mental, and behavioral. While a student struggling with reading or math would be given interventions specific to their learning difficulties, a behavior plan with achievable targets would be implemented for a student with behavioral challenges.

Quality health management software connects traditional school health data like vision and hearing screenings and visits to the school nurse to mental and behavioral health data. Access to that data allows the school nurse and the mental health providers to track student health history and address concerns proactively before they escalate into a crisis.

While academic needs can usually be met within the school or district, often with the help of specialists, mental and behavioral health is different. Collaboration between school mental health providers and community-based professionals can make a difference in helping students reach their goals. With parent participation and permission, data is shared between the school and community mental health treatment providers.

If an intervention plan doesn’t produce positive results even after adjustments, it may indicate that a student needs professional treatment beyond what the school can provide. In those situations, schools must continue to maintain communication and share data with the outside providers. A collaborative effort will enable a positive transition when the student returns to school.

Data is the evidence we depend on

It’s impossible to show evidence of student progress or guide instruction without baseline data. What teachers should do with the data can be a challenge, but there are plenty of resources to help make those decisions. By monitoring progress, decisions are made for students based on facts instead of subjective choices. Everyone benefits when students succeed in school.

Learn more about using baseline data

Go deeper: The Student Learning Objectives Toolkit is a resource developed by the National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment to help educators map out the process for developing quality SLOs.

Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making

For educators looking for evidence of effective instructional strategies to use as interventions, the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, has answers.

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE)

Why should schools provide comprehensive school-based mental and behavioral health services?