Displaying student progress visually – flight paths

“Progress” has been the new buzzword in school improvement and inspection for the last two years now. It makes a lot of sense, especially to parents. “Are students making good progress?” is exactly what parents want to know. Schools do hold a lot of data about this, but they hold such a vast quantity of information acquired through pupil tracking systems that they have difficulty in getting a clear picture of it for themselves. Furthermore, school tracking data is often unfathomable to parents, especially in Key Stage 3. So what to do? For some years now I’ve been using data visualisations like the ones in RaiseOnline to get an overview of a cohort’s progress, particularly at KS4. What I’ve not done so well is visualising progress of individuals over time.  When I heard about flight paths as a visualisation idea for tracking pupil progress across a key stage, I thought it sounded great. But what did flight paths look like? How were they used? Usually, Google is my friend, but at the time of writing (August 2013) there were no images of flight paths available online to explore. I’ve been told other schools have been using them, but I don’t know who they are or what their experience has been.  (If you are using them, please get in touch via the reply form at the bottom.) So, I’ve just had a go myself. With some luck, they might be retrieved by a google image search for “flight path education” in the near future! Here is what they look like …

KS3 flight path

Example KS3 flight path

KS4 flight path

Example KS4 flight path

Of course, teachers want to see all the flight paths for their class in one document, like this (made-up data as an example).

Description of the flight paths

  • Each chart shows the progress in English of a student.
  • The white circles are the tracking grades. In my school, KS3 grades are “current attainment” and KS4 grades are “end of course predictions”.
  • Each grade is joined to its neighbours by black lines to give a visual track.
  • The grey paths and the spaces between them are the “flight paths”. The students have to “stay on their flight path or rise above it”.  They can easily see if they are doing this.
  • The coloured squares in the top left are coloured according to vulnerability information to help teachers. From top left, clockwise the squares represent: Pupil Premium, SEN, Ethnicity not White British, Intervention by Subject, Intervention by School, English as an Additional Language, currently Free School Meals. If a vulnerability does not apply, the square is white.
  • The little blue arrow represents the school agreed target for the end of the key stage. The “T” reminds us it is a target.
  • The narrow red arrow represents the most likely grade estimate from the Fischer Family Trust for the end of key stage. While most schools use Type D, you can use whatever estimate you want here. Of course, you only get these for some GCSE subjects and for English, Maths & Science at KS3 (and these are probably somewhat suspect five years after the demise of KS3 tests).
  • (KS2-4 flight path) The blue lines from the end of Y9 to the GCSE bands show the progress that should be made from Y9 to the end of Y11. From then on, because the tracking grades are end-of-course predictions, students need to stay on the horizontal.
  • The flight paths have been designed to give ambitious targets for all starting points.  They don’t assume equal “sublevels” of progress, mainly because not all sublevels are equal, and in practice, students of higher prior attainment make more progress (at least in terms of sublevels) than students of lower attainment.  There’s another post brewing about this.

In designing the slope of the grey flight paths, I’ve used lots of data from both government sources and the Fischer Family Trust.  It’s made me think quite a bit about the rather simplistic “2+2” model of progress (rise two levels in KS3 and then rise another two in KS4), but I’ll have to leave all that for another post. It’s not easy to produce charts like this from a typical school Management Information Systems (MIS). There’s a lot of data processing to turn a spreadsheet of numbers into something like this on a large scale, but there’s also a lot to be gained. Here are a few points …

It’s easy to see where progress is good or not

Are the students staying on their flight path? Where are the “odd points”? Has anything odd happened in between different years?

You can easily see the relationship between estimates, targets and predictions

This is a distinction that needs stressing again and again. You can estimate a student’s end of key stage outcome from prior attainment and other data. For example, the Fischer Family Trust do this. Here the red arrow helps. Targets need to be agreed in the light of estimates and in the light of our ambition. Here, the blue arrow helps show how our target compares with both the individual’s FFT estimate and the school’s guidance (the grey paths). Finally, the white circles and black lines show whether we are moving towards our target with good progress, or otherwise. It’s much easier than trying to interpret by how much a sequence like 4b blank 4a 5c blank 4b 5c is falling short from an end of key stage target like 6c, even with colour coding.

Young people and parents can easily understand them

Parents have immense difficulty understanding KS3 grades. Even teachers struggle sometimes. Quick – how many sublevels progress between a KS2 grade of 4c and a KS3 grade of 5a? A visual chart really helps here and can inform many conversations – between students and teachers, teachers and managers & teachers and parents.

You can also display visually any vulnerability information

If the top left squares are white, there’s no vulnerabilities to worry about. If they are not, check a bit further. I’m not sure this will be so easy in practice, as you have to remember what each square is for, so I’ll keep a check on whether this is helpful. If we decide to share charts like this with students and parents (and I hope we will) we’ll produce charts with this information removed otherwise student’s vulnerable group membership will be obvious to other students. If you want to use these charts with your own students feel free. There is a set of blanks in a variety of format available below to download in a variety of formats.

In my school next year

We’ve spoken to middle leaders and we intend to trial the use of flight paths. Our aim is to raise student aspirations and identify when to intervene and monitor how well our interventions are going.  We are aiming mainly at KS3, as KS4 already has a good identification and intervention program.

We’ll extract a subject spreadsheet from our MIS containing all the tracking information and vulnerability information to produce a chart like above. We will then process it in two ways …

1) We’ll make the flight paths into pdf files for teachers arranged by teaching group. Teachers will have a 2 or 3 page document with all their classes’ flight paths in.

2) We’ll upload the data to a secure web server where a javascript app will display the flight paths individually and allow some interactivity.

Here’s a working demo of the interactive charts – from the link, just click on any circle (the circle is a student) to show the student’s flight path, then click again to get back to the start page.  After that, try using the highlighting options at the left.  Also, hover over some things to see what happens.

Technical note I’ve written my own software to do this job.  The output from the MIS must be in .csv format.  From this .csv file as source, a perl script with LaTeX makes the pdf file, and via a web server a javascript app using d3.js makes the interactive charts.

Get in touch I’d be keen to hear of any other school which is using flight paths – please get in touch via the comments.

Example flight path file by teaching group for English
KS3 blank flight path in png format
KS3 blank flight path in jpeg format
GCSE blank flight path in png format
GCSE blank flight path in jpg format
BTEC blank flight path in png format
BTEC blank flight path in jpg format

Updated 25 April 2014
Blank svg flight path for KS3
Blank svg flight path for KS4 GCSE
Blank svg flight path for KS4 BTEC
Sample KS3 csv file for flightpaths
Sample KS4 csv file for flightpaths

43 thoughts on “Displaying student progress visually – flight paths

  1. Hi,

    I am currently looking into creating flightpaths for students at my school. The outputs in terms of graphs your system generates are great, I can see how they could be used with students and staff.
    I have created something similar in Excel which produces the indvidual student graphs. I like the way your system allows for the creation of class sets. Would it be possible to share how you do this? Thanks Sam


    • Hi Sam,

      I wrote a program in a language called perl which makes the flightpaths from basic .csv files for each subject. The program runs on Linux at the moment, but could be adapted for Windows. I don’t want to place it in the public domain as I am hoping to provide flight paths as a service, and writing the program took me about two hundred hours. I think this would be quite difficult to do in Excel, even with macro programming, and I’ve done a lot of Excel programming.

      The basic data are in spreadsheet form as .csv files. To process these, the perl program reads in the csv file for each subject and makes a flightpath image file for every student in a graphics format called svg (scalable vector graphics). I chose this as it is simple to program and display on the web.

      Then, the program runs through the subject data again, but sorts by teaching group and pulls in the .svg files so they are collected by teaching groups. It then makes this into a .pdf file for the subject.

      This gets repeated for all subjects.

      Finally, the program runs through all students it has found but sorts them by tutor group. For each student in each tutor group it creates a page with the .svg files for all subjects, making this into a .pdf for each tutor group.

      That means we have pdf files for teaching groups and for tutor groups.

      On the website, I still use .svg for both the flight paths and the race diagrams, but this time, the charts are created by a javascript doing much the same as the perl flight path program. I use the javascript library d3.js which makes the construction of graphs, charts and other visualisations far easier. The basic data are still the .csv files used to construct the flight paths offline.

      Have you tried out your flight paths with teachers yet? Ours have found them useful for learning conversations with students, and we’ve issued them to parents after our first round of Year 11 tracking.


      • We have a much simpler program that produces the individual subject graphs for each student and these have been used with staff, students and parents. The response has been positive as it is far easier to understand than the numerical/letter based targets.

        I can send you the excel file if you would like to take a look.


      • Sam, I would be really interested to see this excel file that creates the graphs if possible. Would you be willing to send me a copy? I have managed to generate the actual yearly milestones in excel, but can’t get it to output a graph at all



      • Hi Sam,
        I don’t use excel, but thank you for the offer. Have you managed to automate it so that you don’t have to generate each subject graph individually. Can it generate an English graph for all the students in Year 7 in one command for example? And have you figured out how to generate all the subject graphs for one students together? This automation was the big challenge for me, took me several days of programming.


    • Hi Sam any chance you could also send me the excel file as my school too are now looking at flight paths which is giving me a real headache. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


  2. how did you make the blank coloured templates ? – I am thinking of trying these with a class and getting pupils to fill in there progress against the expected flightpath from KS2 data. If they are a asset to teachers, pupils and parents then I we may try and link it to our MIS. Many thanks. Regards.


    • Hi there,
      You could create them in any drawing software. I began with the .svg format as it can be created programmatically. There are .jpg and .png image files of the blanks linked above which you are free to use. Good luck!



      • Hi, this software you have designed looks amazing! I would definitely be interested in purchasing a copy once you have it up and running. Please keep me updated!


  3. Hi there,

    We are currently reviewing our targeting and progress monitoring approach and my gut feeling is that something like the flight paths shown would be a valuable visual aid. We currently use GO4Schools and Excel to provide data and for analysis. Logically it would seem that the flight path should be based on a line from the KS2 start point (e.g. average Eng & Maths) to an expected end KS4 level (3 levels of progress or Progress 8 in future). This sort of approach should work well in identifying progress along an extended flight path from KS3-4. The path however is not in reality linear, with many subjects not studied at KS2 starting in Y7 way below the KS2 average and rapidly improving at the later stages of KS3. Flight paths would therefore require some element of curvature for the non English and Maths subjects. This “curvature” is an area we are investigating with the aim of improving target setting and thus monitoring. Has anyone looked into these “progress curves” especially in KS3?


    • Hi Tim,

      I’ll update the post with .svg files and a sample csv. I’m not willing to share the perl code, because it is over 2000 lines, took me a long time to write, and I think I can earn some money back for that commercially.

      Perl basically reads the csv file using the CPAN csv module, then writes out the appropriate stuff into the .svg file. I use inkscape to convert the .svg to .eps. Perl also writes out a .tex file which incorporates the .eps images, and then I use latex to make the .tex files into .pdfs.

      It takes about twenty minutes to make the .pdf files for a full year group – all subjects, all individual students, all form tutors and extra files for SEN pupils (for the SENCO) and for pupil premium students (for the Inclusion Coordinator).

      The onscreen flight paths are done using d3.js, a wonderful javascript library for creating interactive web documents, particularly in .svg.


      • Thanks Trevor,

        I did notice after I posted that you are hoping to sell this. Sorry to be presumptuous! Feel free to email me a little about pricing etc – it does seem rather a lot of work.

        Not that you’re going to want to re-write, but is there a reason you can’t get perl to write everything you want in the final image (including whatever’s in your .tex file) to svg and then if it needs to be in pdf, use either the inkscape command line or something like cairosvg (http://cairosvg.org/user_documentation/#idcommand-line-usage)?


      • Hadn’t thought of that. I suppose it is because I’ve used latex for lots of other projects, and it gives very good control over typeface, image inclusion, footnotes, references, document structure, pagination etc. It has a venerable pedigree and compiles very easily to multiple paged .pdf documents. I’m not sure how I’d make multiple paged .svg documents.


    • Well done! Looks like you’re well on your way. One thing I can’t quite understand is that you seem to be using three separate svg files, but they lie on top of each other – how does that work?


  4. I’m not exactly a perl/svg expert, so have used SVG::TT::Graph…

    Once to do the coloured flight path (dependent on KS3 level, an aspirational target and the ‘miniumum expected prog’. Then again to do the line that tracks their progress through the assessment points. It had to be a second graph of a different type to allow me to leave gaps in the data series.

    The third is the grid lines/axes labels. In reality, SVG::TT::Graph thinks the y-axis is 1, 2, 3,4,5… etc (but I have made the labels invisible). Perl is replacing ‘4b’ with 8, ‘4c’ with 9 etc.


    I will probably flatten/rasterize them in some way when I’m ready to start thinking about printing them.

    One problem that you have solved and I haven’t – and my school reports in the same way – is the flat line at KS4.


    • I see. You could just add a few “echo”s to output additional joining up lines, and include them in the master file – as long as you know how time and grade “co-ordinates” translate into pixels. As for drawing the flatline, just look through some svg documentation for various shapes including the “line” command – it’s easier than html is.


      • Thanks for your help – and inspiration – on this, Trevor. My efforts are a little simpler than yours and, – I think -, designed to achieve a slightly different objective.

        At some point in the future, I wouldn’t mind getting to a point where you can input every class/subject etc all at once and have files dumped into the relevant folders for easy distribution to class teachers etc.

        For now, it’s one CSV file per subject, per year group. In a smallish school like the one I work at, it won’t be too onerous. All I really wanted to do was to print a set of these for every class in my department, which I think I can do now.

        If you are (or anyone else is) interested, I’ve made my work available here: http://www.withtheprogram.net/flight.html

        I’d be grateful of any ‘testing’, as it’s certainly not been put through its paces yet and I would expect a few bugs here and there…



      • Hi Tim,

        That’s fantastic – well done. I like the way you’ve varied the green, amber, red to take into account the starting points. I’m also impressed that you got it to run reasonably quickly. The slowest part of my method is creating .eps files and then using latex. Are you going to add a “convert to pdf” button?

        I’m sure you can do the across-subject thing in time – you’ve certainly got me thinking how I might!



      • I did start playing with conversion to PDF but, like yourself, found that the file conversions are really slow. Would definitely exceed my apache Timeout directive!

        I got disappointing results with cairo too.. Suspect Inkscape would be better but I’ve read that it’s ~10sec per file and not sure if it will run on a headless box.

        For the moment, I’m going to suggest people print to PDF from the browser. Chrome/Lubuntu does a lovely job in seconds.. I wonder what the underlying process is – maybe it can be replicated.

        It is a shame that Windows users probably need to install some ‘virtual pdf printer’-type software at the moment.


      • It’s not too bad to expect a windows user to have a .pdf printer driver. I really like how you’ve made it work on a web interface, but it might be harder to handle both subject + tutor group outputs that way. Still, well done, it is really neat!


  5. Pingback: Displaying student progress visually – flight paths (A brilliant idea with excellent presentation) | Mr Williams Maths

  6. I desperately need to bring in these flightpaths. They look good and mean something to students, staff and especially SLT!!
    I only really have a working knowledge of Excel for the tracker i made.

    Can anyone send me a link or email me a flightpath thingy that will draw flightpaths from my excel data?

    Is it possible? I just want to encourage students and staff to look at it and then get them interested. This is a fab site.


    • Hello Darren, personally, I don’t think Excel is the way to go. It’s graphing facilities are a bit too primitive and not suited to bulk data. It might be possible, and others might come up with a solution too. Tim (see earlier comments) also managed to produce flightpaths, but his solution was also a programming solution. I think flightpaths are starting to be produced in some of the MIS add-ons as well now.


  7. My school is in the process of reviewing our target setting and now we communicate this to students and parents. I love the visual impact and instant feedback these flight paths provide. Could you send me details of the packages available too please?
    Many thanks.


  8. Hi Trevor
    Would you be able to let me know if you are in a position to make the flight paths commercially available? I’m really interested in these, especially. for BTEC.

    many thanks

    Karl Robottom


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