Skip to content

Using Data Visualizations to Help Identify and Address Disproportionality in Schools

March 18th, 2021

Disproportionality refers to a group’s representation in a particular category that exceeds expectations for that group or differs substantially from the representation of others in that category. 

Whether through unconscious bias or simply a lack of awareness, some policies or practices in our schools might disproportionately harm or favor certain groups of students over others. For instance, in a school setting, there might be certain ethnic or socio-economic groups that are disciplined more frequently than their peers or are referred for special education services more frequently.

Analyzing student data can help reveal these disparities, allowing leaders to create more equitable opportunities for all students. With the right mindset, foundation, and data visualizations, administrations can support their teams in identifying where areas of disproportionality may exist so that action can be taken. 

Establishing a growth mindset

First, it’s important to note that this work should not be an exercise in blaming or shaming teachers or administrators. The goal of examining this information is to understand where teams can adjust their practices so that all students are supported and regarded equally. It’s all about growing and improving together to support all learners effectively: using data to help focus attention and elicit change in the right places. Before looking at data, it’s important to create norms that help create a safe place for educators to examine the practices happening in their schools.

Avoiding pitfalls and creating a foundation for success

It is critical that districts adopt clear policies that support nondiscriminatory practices in their schools.

A document created by the Midwest & Plains Equity Assistance Center, “Preventing Disproportionality through Nondiscriminatory Tiered Services,” is a helpful resource on this topic. It includes a section called “Disproportionality Requirements: Common Pitfalls and Recommended Actions,” which suggests policies and procedures to ensure equity in schools. For instance:

These practices shouldn’t be limited only to schools with diverse student populations. Even if you have just one student in your building who is a different ethnicity than the others, it’s important to ensure that student is being treated fairly.

Using data visualizations to identify disproportionality in schools

K-12 leaders can use data visualization tools, such as Illuminate Education’s Achievement Dashboard, to identify disproportionalities within student data and create an action plan to address these gaps. Here are some tips to get you started building your own dashboard.

Start by asking who your students are.  Knowing this information creates a baseline for identifying patterns and disproportionate results down the road. Consider creating a visualization showing student numbers and percentages by ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, disability code, learning modality, and other important student groupings for your district.

Establish baseline data for determining whether incident rates are proportional or not. You can also add a visualization showing the average incident rates for your students as a whole. Then, you can use filters or add a second visualization breaking incidents down to examine incidents by different student groups to determine whether some groups fall above or below the baseline figures. 

Beyond incident data, your team can add visualizations for different types of data to identify disproportionality around assessment, interventions, and more. For example:

  • How are students performing? (using assessment data)
  • Which students are in interventions? (using demographic data)
  • Are students coming to school? (using attendance data)

Filter the data by different groups of students as well as by school and grade level. By sorting the data this way, you can easily see where there might be discrepancies that deserve closer attention. For instance, by filtering incident data by ethnicity, you might learn that Latinx students are suspended at a higher rate than white students for the same infractions. Use the data visualization to review incident data to identify areas that need additional examination and to drive next steps in your action plan.

Leverage data to drive the right conversations

Equity and bias are inherently sensitive topics. How can K-12 leaders bring these up in a thoughtful and sensitive way, without putting individual educators on the spot?

We have to have open and honest communication. Data provide an indisputable impetus for the right conversations to happen, but the way we have those conversations matters. Continue to help the team understand that this work is not about blaming or shaming. It’s about, first, fostering awareness. We’re sometimes just not aware of the ways our actions are impacting students until we use data to understand ourselves.

Follow a data protocol or question list. Having a list of questions to ask as you’re looking at the data helps guide your analysis more effectively. One example is this list of questions from the Center for Performance Assessment in New Zealand. It’s a three-page document, but team leaders shouldn’t feel like they have to ask every question. Pick the ones that are most relevant to the goals you’re hoping to accomplish, and start from there. Use these questions as a reminder and as a starting point of issues to consider when reviewing data. For additional tools, you can also download our Using Whole Child Data to Drive Equitable Access and Outcomes Toolkit.

You can learn more about this topic in my webinar Identify Disproportionalities and Create an Action Plan to Address Equity Gaps,” or learn more about the Achievement Dashboard and how it supports better decision making in schools.


Adam Palmese, Ed.S. is a Senior Educational Consultant for Illuminate Education.  With over 30 years in Education, Adam has served as a Title I teacher, school leader and district administrator, where his focus was on training teachers and administrators about how to use Whole Child data to drive instruction.



Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.


Share This Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *