School Improvement: Needs Assessment

For schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI), districts are required to work with school teams to conduct a school-level needs assessment. State educational agencies (SEAs) and districts are also required to complete a needs assessment for several other major program areas included in the the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (link is external) (e.g., Title I Part A; Title IV Part F) (for more information on these requirements, please see the the Needs Assessment Guidebook from the State Support Network, available here). Needs assessments encourage districts and their schools to systematically examine performance gaps and identify, understand, and prioritize the needs that must be addressed to improve outcomes for all students. Conducting a needs assessment can also help district and school staff understand how the various components of their local educational system interact. Specifically, the needs assessment process helps districts to:

  1. find gaps between current conditions (what is) and desired conditions (what should be);
  2. place these gaps or needs in priority order;
  3. implement strategies, practices, and evidence-based interventions aligned to needs; and
  4. target resources to address needs.

SEAs and districts are required to engage in timely and meaningful discussion with stakeholders during the needs assessment process, specifically principals and other school leaders, teachers, and parents; in addition, it is highly recommended that SEAs and districts engage with a wide range of other stakeholders appropriate to the local context, such as business or community leaders. A key element of a successful needs assessment is a root-cause analysis following the initial needs assessment process by examining relevant data to understand the most pressing needs of students, schools, and educators and the possible root causes of those needs.1 Data on students (e.g., assessment results, graduation rates), schools (e.g., resources, climate), and educators (e.g., effectiveness, retention rates) can also provide insight into local needs. Districts should consider the following when conducting a needs assessment:

  • In addition to the required stakeholders, which other stakeholders are needed to identify local needs?
  • What data are required to best understand local needs?
  • How do student outcomes align to identified performance goals?
  • What are the potential root causes of inequities or performance gaps?
  • How should needs be prioritized when several are identified?


Common Challenges and Potential Risks

Districts and schools can face challenges when conducting and using needs assessment processes effectively as part of school improvement plan development, typically stemming from limited staff capacity. The Needs Assessment Guidebook from the State Support Network describes the following common challenges districts and schools face when conducting and using a needs assessment as part of school improvement plan development:

  • Districts and schools may have limited expertise and capacity, including trained staff, to conduct needs assessments and use the results to develop meaningful school improvement plans.
  • Districts and schools may struggle to take an objective and open-ended review of needs without predetermining solutions, and may tend to continue existing programs without reexamining needs of current students.
  • Districts and schools may start by examining summary results from standardized tests and other state accountability measures but may be unsure of what other data and systems to review as part of a needs assessment process and root cause analysis.
  • Districts and schools may struggle to effectively engage school leadership teams and other stakeholder groups in the needs assessment and improvement planning process, often due to timeline constraints and capacity to effectively incorporate feedback from diverse groups.


Strategies to Support a Successful Needs Assessment

There are a variety of strategies that SEAs can use to help districts conduct meaningful and insightful school-level needs assessments and subsequently develop effective school improvement plans.

  • Provide guidance, training, and support to districts and schools around conducting a school-level needs assessment. This might include examples of data to examine or examples of completed school-level needs assessment summaries.
  • Support districts and schools as they gather feedback and input from a variety of stakeholders, colleagues, and experts to elicit new ideas and insights about the needs of students. SEAs may be able to help support this process.
  • Establish an organizing framework that defines the problems, topics, and questions to be addressed in the needs assessment.
  • Fund and facilitate (directly or through partner organizations) an on-site school quality review process that provides robust, qualitative data and expert, third-party insights on school strengths, challenges, and priorities for school improvement.
  • Require or support districts to conduct a needs assessment to analyze trends across Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) schools and evaluate local practices and systems that are hindering (or supporting) school improvement.
  • Pilot new protocols and tools with a small group of districts to test implementation of the needs assessment process to gather feedback and fine-tune the process to serve both state and local needs.


State Examples

Examples of state approaches to needs assessment

For schools that do not exit CSI status within four years, the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) will work collaboratively with the district and school to identify an external partner to conduct qualitative needs assessments (in addition to the initial needs assessment) at both the school and district levels. This needs assessment will consider previous school improvement efforts and current school conditions. It will also include an assessment of the leadership capacity at the school and district level. The external partner will give an objective assessment of the school from a new perspective. The qualitative needs assessments conducted by external partners are just one component of the required comprehensive needs assessment, which also includes quantitative data analysis, school profile data, educator equity data, financial risk assessments, program analyses, community input, and additional district data. The DDOE will work with external partners to develop local, effective, and cost-efficient external evaluators. The DDOE will also work collaboratively with the district and schools to examine the findings of the needs assessment and support the development of an updated and actionable improvement plan. Additional data analyses will be used to identify which of the previous interventions should or should not be continued and to determine if other evidence-based strategies are needed.

Source: U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Delaware State Plan. State ESSA Plan Approved October 31, 2018. Retrieved from


Through IL-EMPOWER, schools will be able to select a Provider Partner from a pre-approved list that will help them access school improvement services for the area of need based on evidence. CSI schools will be required to participate in IL-EMPOWER, though it will be open to all schools. Schools participating in IL-EMPOWER will be required to:

  • Conduct a needs assessment to establish opportunities for growth and set objectives in one or more of the following areas: Governance and Management, Curriculum and Instruction, and Climate and Culture.
  • Work with a pre-approved Provider Partner to select an additional Provider Partner that will best help the school community in accordance with the needs assessment.
  • Work with their selected Provider Partner(s) to develop an improvement plan and objectives.

By allowing CSI schools to choose their Provider Partner, IL-EMPOWER gives lower performing schools more flexibility to choose evidence-based improvement strategies that best suit their local needs (rather than following a more prescriptive process).

Source: Illinois State Board of Education (n.d.). Support and Accountability: IL-Empower [website]. State ESSA Plan Approved August 30, 2017. Retrieved from


Additional Resources2

Every Student Succeeds Act: Guiding LEA Needs Assessments and Plan Development to Consider Early Learning (link is external) This resource from the Mid-Atlantic Comprehensive Center provides guidance to SEAs in framing and planning for district needs assessments. It provides actions that SEAs can take to support districts and their needs assessments as well as how to shape district needs assessments through guiding questions and data elements.

Needs Assessment Guidebook: Supporting the Development of District and School Needs Assessments This resource from the State Support Network describes the elements and implementation phases of an effective needs assessment process. The guidebook

  • reviews some of the major school-improvement-related needs assessment requirements found in ESEA;
  • introduces the elements of a successful needs assessment;
  • presents a practical approach to addressing those elements across the phases of needs assessment implementation;
  • describes supports that states can provide to districts, and districts to schools, in the implementation of effective needs assessments; and
  • discusses the role of needs assessments within a continuous improvement process.

Needs Assessments Survey Options (link is external) This resource from the Cross State High School Collaborative outlines eleven different surveys that SEAs (and their districts and schools) might consider including in their needs assessments. The resource describes how each survey is used, what it measures, the necessary logistics, and points of contact to learn more.

Root-Cause Analysis Workbook (link is external) This resource from the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders offers eight steps states can take for conducting a root cause analysis in way that addresses equity gaps. It also offers additional resources and tools to help states move toward equity.

Using Needs Assessments for School and District Improvement (link is external) This tactical guide from the Center of School Turnaround describes the core components for developing and administering needs assessments for improvement. The guide includes information on ESEA requirements, tips on planning and designing a needs assessment, descriptions of how a needs assessment is part of the improvement process, and key decision points. Worksheets are included to aid users in designing and developing needs assessments for schools or districts.

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Section 1: Needs Assessment Section 2: Strategy Selection Section 3: Grant Fund Distribution Section 4: Implementation and Progress Monitoring

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1 For more information, please see Non-Regulatory Guidance: Using Evidence to Strengthen Education Investments from the U.S. Department of Education at (link is external). [Return]

2 The inclusion of information or links on this site from sources outside the U.S. Department of Education is done for purposes of information-sharing only and does not imply endorsement of any such information, products, or services by the U.S. Department of Education. [Return]