Three Ways to Use Equity-Focused Language When Communicating Student Performance Data

Group of diverse, young teenage students, standing in a group as friends and peers

(Repost of a September 2023, post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

September 7, 2023 | By Laura Kassner

Why having an equity focus matters in communication

New performance data gets released. Without even seeing the data, what would you predict is the pattern? For over 20 years, since No Child Left Behind, we have seen the same, predictable performance differences. And for over 20 years, there’s been a desire to quickly compare data points, find bright spots and challenges, craft a narrative, and decide on next steps.

But each student exists in a classroom, school, and district within a broader education system, which impacts their opportunities and ultimately their outcomes. Each of these systems has different priorities, standards, funding formulas, and policies. To uphold and enact equity, educators, leaders, and policymakers—indeed, everyone—must acknowledge the broader reality and forces at work that impact student outcomes and use their voices and position to challenge the barriers in the system that keep kids from experiencing success. And it starts in the language we choose to use.

In this blog post, we present three ways to help educators take an equity focus when communicating student performance data.

Cloud IconThree ways to center equity when sharing data

Engage in internal work first.

Before you communicate data, engage first in internal work to consider what achieving educational equity means and requires of you and/or your organization. This internal introspection and grounding in your beliefs serves as the foundation for enacting equity.

If you have not already, consider defining equity aspirationally for yourself and/or your organization. You might ask, for example, “What could every educator do to support each student to reach their full potential?” Answering this question involves understanding and addressing the systemic barriers, circumstances, and conditions that inhibit or advance equity.

Consider the large and small steps needed to move from where you are to where you need to go to achieve educational equity. To dig deeper on how you or your organization might define and move toward equity, consider the following resources:

Stop IconRecognize the power of language when discussing gaps.

Consider expunging the term “achievement gap” from your vocabulary when describing student performance. Such language implies that deficits result from individual failings or, worse, characteristics of a group: “these students” aren’t motivated, don’t do their homework, or aren’t interested in studying hard to earn good grades. Instead, consider describing an “opportunity gap,” which emphasizes institutional and structural barriers to opportunities instead of deficit narratives. These barriers might include disproportionate disciplinary action, as well unequal access to higher-level courses, qualified teachers, and high-quality instructional resources. Discussing the opportunity gap puts the onus on the grown-ups in the system to make important changes instead of blaming students for “the way things are.” While language is constantly evolving and we will continue to learn better ways, we always want to minimize bias, honor students’ cultures and identities, and maximize readability and understanding.
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Puzzle IconState the current reality of student outcomes honestly, coupled with why these outcomes exist.

Student outcomes are not created in a vacuum; the educational environment also contributes to disparate outcomes, not to mention the broader environmental and societal contexts in which students live. This is why honestly stating the what (student outcomes) along with the why (the context of the student experience) is necessary when constructing a more equitable narrative that leads to honest conversations about change. When communicating student performance data, especially disparate findings for marginalized groups, it is important to provide as much information as possible about the contextual factors that might contribute to disparities. These contextual factors might include, for example, under-resourced schools, overidentification for special education and discipline referrals, and under-representation in accelerated and gifted programming. Providing this context helps us view students as complex individuals impacted by systems, rather than simply as data points that they are either good or bad students.

Using equity-focused language in our work

Here’s an instance of how we have used equity-focused language in our work recently.

REL Appalachia staff prepared a factsheet to stimulate discussion at our Governing Board meeting about reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It included both national NAEP data as well as a deeper dive into results from our four-state region, highlighting that the test scores of some student groups declined more sharply than others during the pandemic. As we developed the factsheet, this is what using equity-focused language looked like:
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Cloud IconEngage in internal work first.

As our very first step in producing the factsheet, we considered as a team and explicitly defined educational equity in ways consistent with our values: when each student receives the supports, resources, and instruction they need to learn and thrive.

Stop IconRecognize the power of language when discussing gaps.

We acknowledged that highlighting “achievement gaps” without context would be perpetuating deficit-based thinking about groups of students. Instead, we wanted to make clear the connection between inequitable inputs in schools and the outcomes we predictably see for groups of students. We wanted to use the data on our factsheet to spur conversations for change. In addition to eliminating mentions of “achievement gaps” in the narrative, we also named specific student groups instead of referring to “subgroups” generally and used person-first language (e.g. “students eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL)” instead of “low socioeconomic status students”), while balancing the need to use terminology consistent with data sources and what our audience would recognize and expect.
puzzle graphic

Puzzle IconState the current reality of student outcomes honestly, coupled with why these outcomes exist.

Throughout the factsheet, we stated and restated an important disclaimer beneath each and every graph showing disparate outcomes among student groups to stay focused on why differential outcomes exist: Remember that disparities in student outcomes are the result of systemic inequities in supports, resources, and instruction, not from deficits in students. Not only did this lead to a fruitful discussion among our Governing Board members, but we feel more confident about the discussions it will spur when others use our factsheet — particularly when we are not present to guide the conversation in person.

We hope this factsheet example and the three ways presented in this blog can serve as a potential model for our partners—and readers of this blog—in their contexts.

Resources to dive deeper

If you’d like to learn more and take a deeper dive on this topic of framing student performance data with a focus on equity, check out the three brief videos from the Comprehensive Center Network below, which introduce the Monitoring Educational Equity report by the National Academy of Sciences Commission. These videos are recorded sessions from the National Comprehensive Center’s equity-focused community of practice and are presented by Christopher Edley and Dr. Sean Reardon.

  • In Shifting the Frame Dr. Reardon describes the reframing of educational equity as grounded in four mindset shifts, including moving from a focus on failing schools to addressing the educational system.
  • Major Concepts describes why the Commission focused on disparities in opportunities, including the context in which students live, and the role of adults inside and outside school systems in mitigating educational disadvantages. Dr. Reardon offers an example of how a low-performing district might think about analyzing opportunities for improvement over the trajectory of students’ education.
  • Digging into the Indicators explains the choice of constructs associated with indicators for measurement purposes. Edley and Reardon discuss the importance of the indicator about access to effective teaching and its dimensions.


Published March 2024.

Topics: Access and equity School improvement