Partnering with Students to Understand SEL Data: Student Data Summits

By Nathan Noble, 11th Grade Student at Wooster High School/Student Advisory Council member and Dr. Laura Davidson, Director of Research and Evaluation, Washoe County School District (WCSD)


Since 2009, WCSD’s Office of Accountability has hosted Annual Data Summits where the Board of Trustees, educators, parents, and community members come together for a day of facilitated conversations around district performance data and initiatives. These days provide a forum to examine data patterns on a wide range of topics, from college and career readiness, disproportionality in disciplinary referrals, and patterns in student self-reported social and emotional competencies collected as part of WCSD’s Annual Student Climate Survey.

In 2014, a focus group with high school students (Davidson et al., 2017) revealed a pressing challenge of WCSD’s approach to data use. Put simply by one student:

You guys say that people take it [Student Climate Survey] every year, but it doesn’t really make a difference. Like, when you ask questions about bullying, you think, “Okay, then maybe the school’s gonna do something about the bullying.” But every year you still take the same survey with the same questions, and nothing ever happens. I feel like just, after a while, people get tired of it, and it’s like, “Maybe I saw bullying, maybe I didn’t” – yeah, I did. It’s not a big deal.

We realized our understanding of data would never be complete without engaging our most important stakeholder group in the conversation: our students.

That year, WCSD partnered with members of the Student Advisory Council to host the first Annual Student Data Summit. The format of Student Data Summits mirrors traditional adult-oriented summits, but differs in several important ways:

  • Students facilitate all sessions;
  • School teams send 8-10 randomly selected students and two adult “Student Voice Champions” representing nearly every district middle and high school, and many elementary schools.

Climate and Social and Emotional Competency data have been featured heavily at Student Data Summits (e.g., see 2017 Climate Survey session here). While we as adults grappled with why students repeatedly reported that “sharing their feelings with others” was a particularly challenging competency, students presented with this data told us that there was no encouragement or expectation that they share their feelings in school. Other skills, like “being polite to adults,” were easier because they had been reinforced in school since kindergarten.

This year, in addition to Climate Survey data, students led 15 sessions on topics like:

  • chronic absenteeism;
  • transitioning successfully between school levels; and
  • empowering youth voice at home.

Central to the summit is the opportunity to reflect on the data and educational systems students experience daily. After attending morning breakout sessions, school teams participate in an action-planning activity to decide how they will use what they learned from the day to solve issues in their school communities.

Here is one student’s perspective on the day.

“My name is Nathan Noble. I had the honor of participating in and organizing the Strength in Voices conference this year. I co-facilitated a breakout session with an educator from the Equity and Diversity Department focused on raising awareness about issues of equity in our schools, and discussing ways in which WCSD can promote better access to educational resources for all students. By partnering with staff to develop the content, I learned that there are ways of overcoming these divides, and better understood how the district tries to ensure that students not only have the opportunities they need, but are encouraged to access them.

In our session, we had students suggest ways schools could find equitable solutions to problems and remove barriers to graduation. I think administrators learned a lot from hearing students share their ideas and stories. Many realized students’ lives really do depend on them and the decisions they make. Administrators can change the whole trajectory of a student’s life by providing them access to the resources they need. They are shaping a generation.

Data was the cornerstone of the conversations between students and staff. We showed average dropout rates and standardized test performance by race/ethnicity, gender, and other student groups and looked at where there were chronic divides. I think students intuitively knew these divides existed, but were not aware of how serious they were. Reactions to the data varied, but I think many students left wanting to be more aware of the problems and do something to help.

Data gives us all a better grasp about the current situation in classrooms. When we are freely given access to information, we can actually try to do something about it and that can lead to great things. The conference is one of the best examples out there of staff really listening to students.

I think it is important to have two types of data grounding these conversations:

  • raw empirical data (e.g., graduation data by socioeconomic status); and
  • subjective data that reflects students’ individual experiences (e.g., Climate Survey and Student Voice).

When you combine subjective and objective data, it provides a more realistic picture of what school is actually like. Objective data paints a panoramic view of what the school is producing in terms of outcomes, but schools also need to take into account student enjoyment. School should be fun. It should inspire students to improve their world. When schools put forth good results, and students feel empowered and impassioned, that’s the best situation we can have. Educators should know that students have a lot of great ideas that aren’t often recognized…all you have to do is ask us.”



Davidson, L. A., Crowder, M. K., Gordon, R. A., Domitrovich, C. E., Brown, R. D., & Hayes, B. I. (2017). A continuous improvement approach to social and emotional competency measurement. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.


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