Data: Education’s New “Dirty” Word

It seems that in some circles, data has come to be one of education’s “dirty” words. I suspect I know why, and unfortunately, it is difficult to convince those people who think that way otherwise.

Many professions, such as medicine, law, finance, and even construction use data on a regular basis to inform their work. If you were to go to the doctor’s office and get on the scale, the doctor would use that data to draw some conclusions and make some recommendations. The doctor does not only use the scale and the number it gives however. The doctor may also check your cholesterol, your blood pressure, and may make other observations that inform her of what it is you need to do or not do to preserve or improve your health.

Like other professions, education also benefits from using data. When a teacher administers a formative assessment to her class, she reviews the results of the assessment and then determines if students need further instruction, or if they have demonstrated an understanding of the content taught, thereby, letting her move more deeply into the content or beyond. Additionally, teams of teachers use time together as PLCs to look at student work and make determinations about units they’ve taught and content they’ve covered. The team’s review of data and student work helps them decide how they proceed with their instruction.

Sadly, data has been given a bad connotation through the use of accountability measures, where often times, student performance is “boiled down” to a spreadsheet full of scores, or an accountability report that attempts to show a profile around school performance. This very narrow and limited view of student performance has led many to believe that school administrators are only concerned with number and scores, and that the faces of the students attached to those scores are null and void.

Shared from
Shared from

I believe that data is not a dirty word when used correctly and in the best interest of those it is intended to serve: students. As a school level administrator, I must be able to manage the “tension” of using both quantitative and qualitative data to make instructional decisions for students and staff. It can never be “or”. It must always be “and”. Because of the nature of my work, I move back and forth between scores and performance, as well as aggregated and disaggregated data, which helps inform me about groups of students and individual students. Data (quantitative) should always tell one piece of the story. For instance, I recently had teachers upload writing scores from a mid-year writing prompt that was administered and I wanted to look to see how students had done. For one particular grade level, I noticed that the scaled scores for each student looked relatively low. Before jumping to conclusions, I knew I needed some qualitative data to help inform me. As it turned out, my teachers on this one particular team had used the pre-assessment for the writing prompt to help inform their instruction. Had I not asked and not looked beyond the scores on the spreadsheet, I might have made other conclusions. The writing scores did reflect students’ ability prior to instruction, therefore, after instruction, the scores should have looked differently.

Another example would be looking at a student’s fluency score on a universal screening tool. For some students, their reading rate is low, however, they are accurate readers. Without a qualitative discussion with the teacher, these students may look like they are not proficient with their reading, when in fact, they are slow but steady readers that have a high ability to comprehend what they read.

School districts, department heads, principals and teachers have relied on data for years. Teacher observations of students, report cards and other assessments have all played a role in providing educators feedback to support student learning. The advent of standardized testing linked to state and federal accountability frameworks has turned some educators and the public against using data when it has only been representative of one small sector of an assessment system or when no further qualitative investigations have taken place.

As we continue to live in an age of accountability where everyone is concerned about student achievement, it is imperative that those closest to the work (principals and teachers) use data in mindful ways that provide them an indicator of student performance. Principals should thoughtfully be working with teachers to engage in rich discussions about the scores and not only be looking at the aggregate or overall performance, but be mindful to not overlook the individual performances of students as well. It is through that level of analysis that educators truly work as learning communities and adjust their instruction and intervene on behalf of students.

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Shared from

Lastly, the truth is, behind every score is a student, and behind every student, is a story. Those of us working closely with educational data need to ensure that every child’s story is told, so that every child may benefit from our collective efforts. If not, data will continue to be education’s new “dirty” word.


Overtesting Students: Some Truths about Standardized Testing

Many of us have heard the expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”.  It is no wonder that when people, groups, or organizations take things to the extreme, that misconceptions come about.  Additionally, not every person is acquainted with every other person’s work.  For example, I don’t know everything that a doctor does, so therefore, if the doctor is prescribing a lot of medication to patients, it may or may not be warranted, despite what my perception is around prescribing the medication.

Assessment is no different, and honestly, to some degree, standardized testing has earned itself a bad name.  I’m not saying that I am a huge supporter of these types of tests, but with anything, they have their place and I suppose if utilized appropriately, could have some added value.  For the general public, there is clearly not enough understanding about the types of assessments that provide educators information about student performance.  Perhaps that is the first place to start.

Summative assessments have been likened by some educators, as an “autopsy” because of the finality of their administration and results.  These types of tests, like so many high stakes state tests, often times are administered near the end of the year and by the time the results come back, do not offer educators a lot of time to go back and reteach or change instruction.  Generally, these tests are for policy makers, who use the results to drive policy.  Now, for some districts and states, these tests take up a small amount of time and schools work hard to use the information garnered from them to change instruction for the group that had taken them and also determine what they may do differently regarding instruction for the students coming to them.  Other states use as many as 30 days to administer state driven tests, which seems to be the extreme and erodes from the amount of teaching time that classroom teachers have to engage with students.

Formative assessments, on the other hand, are likened to “check ups” because they are periodic, not final in nature, and provide teachers and instructors the opportunity to check in on student understanding and change the nature of their teaching before finally assessing students.  They provide more opportunity for teachers to determine where students have clarity, and where they have gaps in understanding.  Additionally, these formative assessments also are much shorter in length, and can be done quickly in the classroom with the teacher or team of teachers using results to quickly adjust teaching so to affect learning outcomes for students.

Universal screening tools are just that; screening tools.  They provide an indicator that something might be needed on behalf of the student to help them be more successful.  They are quick in nature, and usually administered across groups of students to determine if further probing may be needed.  Some of these tools may be used to “progress monitor” children to see if changes in instruction produce changes in student learning.

In all three assessment scenarios, I always think about that expression, “Too much of a good thing is bad for you”.  Massachusetts is a very MCAS driven state, with results being extremely public and along with other states, penalties being tied to lower than expected results for aggregate and disaggregated groups of students.  While I do not believe in “teaching to a test”, I do believe in the following:

1.  States need to be sure that their curriculum frameworks are at the LEAST, aligned to those national standards that have been designed to help students meet with success after leaving school (K-12).

2.  School districts need to review curricula and ensure that they are not only aligned to state and national standards but that they are rigorous and engaging for learners.

3.  Leaders in schools need to ensure that the district curricula is not only taught, but that structures are in place for those students that do not meet the standards, so that they have an opportunity to be retaught in a way that helps them reach the standard (RTI).

If the above three things happen, then in fact, teachers are teaching to the standards, which students should have mastered and then they are only needing to have some teaching around test taking strategies.

In the end, it really isn’t about the test, and I wouldn’t advocate teaching to one either.  Additionally, that test is just one snapshot of a student’s performance and therefore, the formative assessments a classroom teacher gives, if aligned to the standards, shows a student’s performance over time and may indeed show a more robust picture of what kids know in regards to the standards.

Districts and states need to be smart about balanced assessment systems and not lose sight of the teaching that needs to take place with students.  That teaching does not only mean academic standards, but citizenship, pro social skills, and all of the other teachable moments that help our students be well rounded, global citizens.  While many of us may not like standardized tests, good practices help ensure that they aren’t the “standard” of how we assess our children on a regular basis.

Creativity and Engagement in the CCSS Era

There have been many editorials over the past year or so with strong feelings that creativity and engagement have been taken from students and teachers in the classroom setting.  I had the good fortune this week to have two very excited and proud first grade students come to see me, making me realize that student engagement and creativity are alive and well within the classrooms of my school and within the curriculum based on Common Core State Standards .

(Image source: Fotolia)
(Image source: Fotolia)

I was just preparing to start one of my monthly literacy department meetings, when my administrative assistant came to get me in my office.  Normally, I hold those meetings in our literacy center, however, on this day, I was holding the meeting in my office due to some testing that was being done in our regular meeting space.  I left my office and went out to the main office area, only to find two first grade boys standing there waiting for me, both looking serious with papers in their hands.

Both boys shared that they had done some writing and they were there to share with me.  Knowing that students often times enjoy sharing their work, I invited them to my office where the literacy staff were waiting for me and I asked the students if they would share with me and the other adults I was meeting with.  I was pleasantly surprised when the two boys let me know that they wanted to share some persuasive writing with me!

The first student began to read his piece, which in fact, was about me.  He shared in his piece of writing that he thought I was a good principal and that I helped students.  I wasn’t sure who his intended audience was, but I gave a small chuckle and appreciated the fact that he was trying to persuade someone to think I was a good principal. It was very flattering.

The second student then read his piece, which was writing that was intended to persuade me to buy some soccer balls so that they would have them to play with on the playground.  The student had tried to use a basketball and that didn’t work too well for soccer, thus, his persuasive letter.  After reading his letter, the other student turned to him and told him that he had a soccer ball at home and that he didn’t use it, so he would gladly bring it to school for them to use.

My reading specialists, the K-5 ELA department head and I all shared with the two boys how impressed we were with their persuasive writing.  The two boys beamed as they held their papers in my office and were excited that they not only got the chance to “persuade me”, but that adults were pleased with their writing.  Their teacher later shared with me how thrilled they were to come to the office with their writing and she also was very happy with how much her children were writing in the classroom.

Providing students opportunities in the classroom to prepare them for college readiness does not equate to learning that is not engaging and it certainly does not equate to teachers not using their skills to provide students with creative ways to learn.  The “art and science” of teaching refers to teachers employing their “art”, which is the creative way they deliver content and instruction to students.  The “science” is the following of aligned curriculum, which over time, helps create well prepared students to leave our schools and go forward into the world.

boy writing
(used from Hudson Public Schools)

As a school leader, it is important to foster a culture where teachers feel that they can use creativity in the classroom no matter what standards are being taught and no matter what curriculum is being delivered in a district.  Teachers must have latitude to use a level of professional judgement around what will stimulate learning and engagement for students.

It is also important, that while promoting creativity, that principals have open and transparent dialogue with teachers about what needs to be taught.  Delivering instruction that will support students after they leave our schools is imperative and should be a non negotiable.  In the end, it really is about the art and science of teaching, it is about balance, and it is about using good judgement to provide students engaging instruction within a structured curriculum where teachers are able to use the gifts that we hired them for in the first place!