Data? Please.

I’m a math guy. An unabashed nerd that genuinely enjoys the pure act of doing math problems…preferably hard ones. When teaching Algebra I, I like making up problems on the fly that will come out in a certain way. When teaching Calculus, I will do virtually every problem at the end of each section so I know which ones I want my students to practice on. I tutor kids in college helping them with math that I haven’t done myself in 25 years. Because I’m a math guy.

Which is precisely why folks tend to be surprised when I scoff at standardized testing data.

With very few exceptions, results of a standardized test (whether it be a district ‘benchmark’ or a state assessment) don’t tell me much of what I don’t already know about my kids. Are many of them lacking in foundational skills? Yep. Will scores from my school (a low-income, Title I district) be marginally lower than the schools on the other side of town? For the most part. Do I come into the classroom every day and do what I can to give confidence to kids that may have never passed a math state assessment in their school career? Absolutely.

That’s why I don’t lose any sleep on what the data tells me. These kids have been left behind…not by their previous teachers (at least not entirely), but by the system. They have been repeatedly told they are a failure, in spite of completing reams of worksheets, losing out on electives (which may be their only bastion of sanity) in order to double block math or reading, and honestly doing the best they can when filling in 50 or so lines of bubbles. 

Data also does a disservice to the high achievers and utterly disregards the lowest. Administrations all over the country are instructing their teachers to focus on the ‘bubble kids’…those who, according to the data, are within some constructed margin of the passing standard (which, itself, is also constructed). “The top kids will pass the test without any interference from you teachers. The kids on the other end of the spectrum won’t pass regardless, so why waste the time?” (OK, maybe not direct quotes, but that is certainly the message.)

But, what if we didn’t have that data? What if <gasp> instead of reading a row of numbers on a spreadsheet (or, worse, a data wall in a teacher’s lounge) the teacher knows the student, and not just the numbers that districts and testing corporations seem to define him by? And what if that teacher is allowed to make a judgement on that student’s growth using a variety of tools and assessments throughout the year? And what if that teacher passes that portfolio of knowledge about that student on to that student’s next teacher, regardless of what school, district or state he goes to? That’s the kind of data I could get behind.

To be clear, standardized testing is not inherently evil…it can have a place as a beginning of year diagnostic tool. Nor is data gleaned from it evil…it can be used to get a quick grasp on where students are after a summer break. But what we are currently doing with tests and data IS evil. And it needs to change.


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