Driving Lessons: Putting the Data-Driven Map in Perspective

By Kathleen Sullivan

Data is defining the self worth of our children, the value of a dedicated, compassionate caring teacher, and the marketability of our homes. Data has proven to be invaluable as a tool to identify weak spots in curriculum and also as a way to identify students in need of academic intervention. But with the focus on data, something else happened. Education leaders, administrators, and teachers stopped talking about students as individuals; instead we began to hold data meetings and we started to refer to students simply as “above grade level”, “at grade level”, “progressing, but below grade level”, or “needs improvement”. At the same time, new students test scores began to be the first thing we checked to see how their scores would affect overall data for the upcoming testing season

Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, an aggressive education reform organization, appears to believe the only way to measure student and teacher success is through test scores. StudentsFirst recently released a report grading states on how they are working to elevate the teaching profession, empower parents, spend wisely, and govern well. Florida and Louisiana were at the top of the list. The problem is that the initiatives being promoted by StudentsFirst sounds great in theory but education reform goes well beyond test scores and data.

We need an education reality check. I recently “liked” a Facebook posting that read “I Care More About the Person My Students Become Than The Scores On The Tests They Take”. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about test scores and data. It does mean that society needs people who have integrity and character. Test scores are important as a way of measuring what students are learning. Does it measure smart? What does smart mean? Does it strictly mean a high test score? Personally, I think data and test scores are part of the puzzle. Students can explain a concept but often can’t write it. Students can demonstrate a concept by creating a project but they may not be able to read a word or understand a word on a standardized test and lose points.

We need to broaden the way we think about and use data so we can make sure we’re giving each student what they need to succeed. Some students need extra academic supports to increase their capacity to learn. Students with learning, physical, and emotional disorders also need special supports.

If we invest in supporting our children academically and emotionally, we will invest in children who can not only answer questions right but also can face challenges and seek solutions. Let’s figure out how to measure those skills too.

Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

Why Education Reform Needs Data

Public education is a fragile yet critical resource and we have to do more to strengthen our public schools.  People are willing to acknowledge that too many students are in schools that don’t give them an adequate chance to learn.  Teachers know what it takes to be effective and administrators are working hard to get the necessary resources into their schools.

And yet. And yet.

There’s real concern about whether we can deliver to all students. I’ve been thinking a lot about this gulf between our effort and the nagging doubts about the ability to deliver success.

Why is it there? I think it’s because we’re afraid of the numbers. I can understand the inclination.  I was never big on numbers. In third grade, 8 X 2 frustrated and defeated me.

Nationally, numbers have gotten a bad name in education. Rather than seeing them as helpful, we see them as punitive.

Data, even standardized test data, is an important tool for teachers.But, the numbers hold the key to translating our aspiration for public schools into a success story. The numbers can tell us which concepts our students have mastered and which ones need more work. Teachers need to know that. Parents need to know that and, yes, the taxpayers who fund schools need to know that too.

So let’s have an honest conversation about assessments, tests and all. Rather than an all or nothing question of to test or not to test, let’s start talking about how various measures can be put together to give us a multi-faceted picture of the complex work of teaching and learning.  We need to be bold enough to be honest about what tests measure, what they can’t measure and what other data we can use to fill the gaps.

At VIVA Teachers, we know that teachers can drive this conversation. Put away the anti-testing rhetoric and the blame-the-teachers vitriol. And let the numbers help us find the right answer.

What’s a good example of how to use test data effectively?