Early Warning for Student Needs: 7 Ways to Use an EWS (Beyond At-Risk Identification)

Written by Jim McIntosh on February 28, 2019

Early Warning Systems (EWSs) are historically designed to identify students at risk of dropping out. When identifying at-risk students, the literature recommends monitoring Attendance, Behavior, and Course Performance data. Monitoring these indicators has resulted in preventative, responsive action for students in many districts.

Many Uses for Early Warning Educational Software

However, it’s worth considering that an EWS could have a wide range of possible applications beyond “at-risk” flagging. At the core of an Early Warning System, we are essentially saying: “We have data constantly coming in. It can be hard to see important events in the moment. I need the system to watch for important occurrences and alert me when they happen, so I can take action.” When put that way, it makes sense that there are many purposes for that type of functionality.

In a previous blog post, we discussed evidence that EWSs could be used for high school readiness and summer school recommendations. Here are a few other possible, practical uses for system alerts.

1. Graduation Pathways / On Track to Graduate

Many states offer multiple graduation pathways or diploma types, each with various weighted criteria that are dependent on each other. These criteria may include the number of credits in specific subjects, dual enrollment, college readiness exams (such as SAT), and successful completion of AP courses.

Setting up an alert or warning might handle the complex process of calculating credits of qualifying courses and the “if/then” logic of different graduation pathways. This means that counselors and principals can monitor whether all students are on track for graduation throughout the year—and take action with timely support when students are not. Visualizing the results of these types of warnings can also reveal trends at the building and grade level.

2. Athletics Eligibility

Athletics eligibility is typically determined by a combination of current grades, behavior, and attendance and is weighted at locally selected thresholds. (For example, one district may require all A’s and B’s, where another may allow A’s, B’s, and C’s). It can be hard for coaches to carve out the time it takes to comb through multiple data sets, identify who is approaching athletics ineligibility, and determine who is already ineligible for the week.

Ineligibility can have lasting impacts on student athletes’ success, including scholarship attainment and the opportunity to play for college scouts. Beyond that, if a student is indeed struggling in one of these key areas, the student needs support regardless.

Setting up an alert to monitor ineligibility would allow coaches to work as part of a collaborative support system to identify root causes and intervene before ineligibility happens. It could also provide coaches quick, clear reports for identifying who is and is not eligible, so they can dedicate more of their time to coaching.

3. Early Literacy Warnings

The development of early literacy skills has been strongly linked to academic success in the future. If students reach fourth grade without at-grade-level reading abilities, academic achievement is statistically much more difficult to achieve, and the student is at a higher risk of dropping out (Hernandez, 2012).

Districts often measure and monitor early literacy using interim assessments that provide a cut score or benchmark-style score. Here, the assessment is commercially designed to explicitly say “At Level” or “Not at Level.”

Typically, interims are used in conjunction with other assessments, including a progress monitoring assessment that tracks the growth of struggling readers. An early alert system could help triangulate these data sources (especially frequent progress monitoring) and provide immediate feedback about which students are on track or not on track—and where to make adjustments to instruction or interventions.

4. Gifted Identification

Usually once or twice per year, districts work to identify students for gifted and talented programs. Often, this includes data from aptitude screeners (such as CogAT or Naglieri), achievement data from other interim and summative assessments, and other assessment tools.  Self-reported data, teacher recommendations, or data from rubrics used to assess giftedness in dance, theater, music, etc. could also be use in identification processes.

An EWS could look across these multiple data points to help determine students for high ability and giftedness programming, or identify students who may be eligible with some additional supports. Thoughtful weighting could help to better distinguish specific acceleration or advanced programming needs.

5. ELL Adequate Progress

Aside from various formative assessments throughout the year, districts often monitor growth in English Language Learners via summative assessments, such as WIDA ACCESS.

What we consider to be “adequate progress” can vary. A 2000 study found that even in districts “considered the most successful in teaching English to EL students, oral proficiency takes 3 to 5 years to develop, and academic English proficiency can take 4 to 7 years” (Hakuta, Butler & Witt, 2000). Many states also provide guidance on what adequate progress should look like in relation to the student’s initial identification screening.

An Early Warning System could handle the “calculation” of which students have progressed as expected and which have not, comparing scores over time. If data from intervention or curriculum programs are being gathered, an EWS could calculate and monitor growth alongside those summative assessments. And, if a district has a locally developed expectation of growth, the rubrics or indicators used in those processes could be considered as well.

6. Threat Assessments and Screeners

Per various state legislation, many districts have started to document “threat assessment” information for students. Although these forms can vary quite a bit, the goal is typically to help staff ask themselves the right questions while assessing likeliness of a student harming his or herself or others.

These forms are sometimes divided into many separate sections: communication of specific plans; history with weapons, drugs, and alcohol; mental health considerations, etc. The staff member typically answers a series of specific questions in each section and summarizes a low, medium, or high level of concern.

These deeply personal documents cannot be replaced by an Early Warning System. But an EWS may help educators summarize responses across the multiple sections. For instance, it could create an “overall level of concern” value based on the separate section responses. It could also tally the number of low, medium, and high responses, or automatically alert counselors or other specialized staff when certain responses are given.

7. Early Warning for Student Needs Identification as Part of MTSS

Any of the above examples could be considered part of an MTSS process. But it’s worth stating again. As districts look at whole child data for every student, implement evidence-based interventions, and monitor growth and progress, an EWS can be a helpful tool for data analysis. In addition to monitoring the traditional EWS indicators (course performance, attendance, and behavior), it can also monitor social emotional, health factors, causal data, and other student data relevant to your decision-making process

Monitoring all of those data sources as they change from day to day (and, even throughout a single day) is a monumental task. Setting an EWS to look for specific events in your data means your team spends less time consolidating, designing, and disseminating reports. It gives them more time and emotional energy to use those data as a starting place and then thoughtfully evaluate every student’s needs.

Furthermore, if a student is found not to respond to increasing levels of intervention, he or she may be referred for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with the district’s Special Education department. There are legal ramifications for how and when students are referred for IEP services, and it’s important to document the longitudinal data used in those high stakes decisions. Using an EWS can support your team procedures throughout the progress-monitoring-phase of intervention implementation, ensuring that staff are providing the right support along the way. In the instance that a student is referred to IEP, it can also help confirm that your team is indeed tracking all needed data and documenting those processes as required—providing needed system level information for improvement.


The functionality behind an EWS—“Watch my data and alert me when these specific things happen”—is extremely robust. There is a lot of potential for helping educators respond to student needs immediately, but also to help them allocate their time and energy to support their students with meaningful actions.


Hernandez, D. (2012) Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, 2012. Retrieved from the Annie E. Casey Foundation website: https://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy/

Hakuta, K., Goto Butler, Y., & Witt, D. (2000) How Long Does It Take English Learners To Attain Proficiency?, 2000. Retrieved from the Stanford University website: https://web.stanford.edu/~hakuta/Publications/(2000)%20-%20HOW%20LONG%20DOES%20IT%20TAKE%20ENGLISH%20LEARNERS%20TO%20ATTAIN%20PR.pdf


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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