Using Data to Tell Your Story


With a few exceptions, staff from all colleges and universities use data to complete regulatory compliance and accreditation work on a regular basis. Much of the time these tasks are routine, and some might say, mundane. Once programs are approved, staff typically only need to submit an annual report to a state department of education or accrediting body unless the institution wants to make major changes such as add new programs or satellite campus, change to a different educational model, and so on.

And then typically every 7-10 years a program or institution must reaffirm their program approval or accreditation. That process is much more complex than the work completed on an annual basis.

Regardless of whether an institution is simply completing its annual work or if they are reaffirming its accreditation, all strategic decisions must be informed or guided by data. Many institutions seem to struggle in this area but there are some helpful practices based on my experiences over the years:

Tips for Using Data to Tell Your Story

  • Know exactly what question(s) you are expecting to answer from your assessment data or other pieces of evidence. If you don’t know the question(s), how can you know you can provide the information accreditors are looking for?
  • Be selective when it comes to which assessments you will use. Choose a set of key assessments that will inform your decision making over time, and then make strategic decisions based on data trend lines. In other words, avoid the “kitchen sink” approach when it comes to assessments and pieces of evidence in general. Less is more, as long as you choose your sources carefully.
  • Make sure the assessments you use for accreditation purposes are of high quality. If they are proprietary instruments, that’s a plus because the legwork of determining elements such as validity and reliability has already been done for you. If you have created one or more instruments in-house, you must ensure their quality in order to yield accurate, consistent results over time. I talked about validity and reliability in previous articles. If you don’t make sure you are using high-quality assessments, you can’t draw conclusions about their data with any confidence. As a result, you can’t really use those instruments as part of your continuous program improvement process.
  • Take the time to analyze your data and try to “wring out” all those little nuggets of information they can provide. At a minimum, be sure to provide basic statistical information (i.e., N, mean, median, mode, standard deviation, range). What story are those data trying to tell you within the context of one or more regulatory standards?
  • Present the data in different ways. For example, disaggregate per program or per satellite campus as well as aggregate it as a whole program or whole institution.
  • Include charts and graphs that will help explain the data visually. For example, portraying data trends through line graphs or bar graphs can be helpful for comparing a program’s licensure exam performance against counterparts from across the state, or satellite campuses with the main campus.
  • Write a narrative that “tells a story” based on key assessment data. Use these data as supporting pieces of evidence in a self-study report. Narratives should fully answer what’s being asked in a standard, but they should be written clearly and concisely. In other words, provide enough information, but don’t provide more than what’s being asked for.

Let’s face it: Compliance and accreditation work can be tricky and quite complex. But using data from high-quality assessments can be incredibly helpful in “telling your story” to state agencies and accrediting bodies.


About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).  She can be reached at:

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