Elizabeth Dogget remembers how hard it was to personalize instruction to meet student needs while she was student teaching.

“It was really difficult to track where my students were on their progress towards meeting a learning objective and giving them timely feedback,” she recalls.  “Often I would take a bunch of stuff home over the weekend, but by the time I got through giving them all feedback, it would be too late for them to make meaningful changes.”

Now a teacher at Summit Public Schools, a charter school group in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dogget has access to a broad range of data on each student at her fingertips. Summit’s Personalized Learning Plan, a student dashboard designed in-house, gives both teachers and students access to not just assessment data, but also individual students’ goals and the progress they are making toward them. Fine-grained data from multiple classrooms allow teachers to modify instruction to meet individual students’ needs—for example, simplifying the language on a math test to help English language learners who understand the concepts but may struggle with the wording.

Teachers can also analyze data to identify peers to collaborate with on specific subject areas. “Maybe at one school, students are really struggling in this area, but at this one they’re not—so what is that teacher doing?” explains teacher Jessica Breed. “I want to borrow that strategy, or that graphic organizer, or the different way you explained this concept.”

Summit is one of several schools profiled in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s new report, Teachers Know Best: Making Data Work for Teachers and Students. While the report details the challenges teachers face using the growing amounts of student data available to make meaningful changes in instruction, it also shows how at innovative schools like Summit, educators aren’t waiting for developers to provide answers to these challenges. By developing their own tools, remaking existing ones, or hacking together data displays to include multiple sources of information, they are creating ways to give students windows into their own performance and combine formative, summative, and normative data to help shift the trajectory of learning. In doing so, they are developing tools that enable themselves and other educators to achieve ambitious instructional goals.

KIPP Chicago, for example, combined formative, summative, and normative data in its own student performance dashboards to highlight points of successful intervention that might shift the course of learning from one trajectory to another. This added context helps makes data understandable to students and parents, school officials say.

Intrinsic Schools, a Chicago-based public charter school, developed its own student portal by accessing an application programming interface and tying together existing tools including Google Apps for Education, the Illuminate student information system, and Kickboard, which stores data on student behavior and consequences.

“Without the integration of behavioral data, you] have the data point but you don’t have the story behind the data point,” an Intrinsic school official said. “Having all that in one place, which we’re starting to do, has been super helpful.”

Merit Prep, a Newark, New Jersey, charter school operated by Matchbook Learning, created Spark, a data integration tool that pulls together information from online learning and assessment resources from multiple providers. Merit Prep officials estimate that Spark saves teachers between 15 and 75 minutes per student when they aggregate data to track student progress toward mastery.

Tools like these help teachers plan and deliver lessons—but they can also help students. A key to Summit’s approach is giving students access to their data—and tools to do something with them. Students log into their Personalized Learning Plan daily to set learning and personal goals with the help of their teachers, track their progress, receive feedback, and access learning resources. Parents also have access to the same dashboard, giving them understanding and shared ownership of their children’s progress.

Access to personalized content that meets students where they are is a key to Summit’s approach with the system, says Jon Deane, Summit’s chief information officer. “Even on the best days as a great teacher, differentiating on where students are for content knowledge is pretty darn hard,” he says. “Students should be able to access what they need at the moment they need it, and we provide the resources so that they can do that.”

Summit teachers say the Personalized Learning Plans have transformed the way they teach. “I can’t imagine teaching without having all of this data at my fingertips,” Dogget says. “It makes my life so much easier. It makes the students’ lives so much easier. It makes me a better teacher, and it makes them more successful students.”

Read more about the challenges teachers face working with data at the Foundation’s Teachers Know Best site.