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Big Data in Independent Schools: Assessing What We Value?

By Peter Gow — March 18, 2013 3 min read

It’s all about Big Data nowadays. The more I hear, the more I wonder whether reducing all of my behaviors to numbers isn’t soon going to reduce me to nothing but a wisp of data points wafting through the algorithms of time. Maybe that’s all we are, anyway, statistically speaking.

I won’t belabor the small-minded ways Big Data is being used in some public school arenas: adding to the devaluation of teachers, the de-resourcing of underresourced schools, “proving” this or that. We can go back through history and discover, with Cathy Davidson and Nicholas Lemann, that the standardized testing boom was jump-started by the urgent need, in wartime, to industrialize the process of sorting and training young men. It won World Wars I and II, so why shouldn’t standardized testing win us an educational system, too?

Independent schools have long been up to their eyeballs in testing. The selective colleges that signed on in 1900 to what became the SAT drew students disproportionately from independent schools; these colleges are now super-selective, and they still have a disproportion of independent school matriculants. Independent secondary schools fret over SAT prep; elementary and middle schools sweat about secondary school admissions tests.

We can now worry, too, about item 13 of the 2011 National Association of Independent School Commission on Accreditation “Criteria for Effective Independent School Accreditation Practices.” Criterion 13 directs that schools show where and how they use data to inform decisions about instructional programs.

Easy enough, you might think. Just look at some scores and decide whether to flip-flop Algebra II and Geometry or spend more fifth-grade time on vocabulary than mythology.

However, independent schools like to make loftier claims for their outcomes than just SAT and ERB scores (those that do, anyway; plenty just post college lists as a proxy for score data), so there is increasing interest in better data and better ways to use it. Connecticut independent school leaders Doug Lyons (a member of the NAIS Commission on Accreditation) and Andrew Niblock (bio) have gathered a wealth of information on various new instruments purported to measure broader and deeper educational outcomes than do SATs or the CTP-4.

A serious comer is the College and Work Readiness Assessment. The CWRA is the sibling of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, lately used to demonstrate some apparent shortcomings in college academics, and it asks students to create essay responses to multi-dimensional, broad-based, “real world” problems using a format rather like AP document-based questions. Currently used by 80+ independent and 70+ public/charter schools, the CWRA yields school-by-school normative data, but more importantly it can be used within a school, by testing at the different grade levels, to show “effect"--how cohorts of students improve in apples-to-apples comparison, thus demonstrating student learning in the areas being assessed--critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication. A school can find out (and show, if it chooses to) how much progress its students make in these areas, a putative demonstration of the school’s “value add.” (Learn more here and here, the latter from Jonathan Martin, who headed a CWRA-using school.)

Also promising is the High School Survey of Student Engagement. Another secondary-level sib (of the National Survey of Student Engagement), the HSSSE (“hessie”) is a detailed questionnaire that asks students essentially how much they put into their school experience and how much they believe they get out of it; it’s complex enough to yield viable data. For independent schools, HSSSE data (and that from a newer Middle Grades Survey) can be a wake-up call or even, for the fortunate and daring, a marketing tool.

I find it encouraging that there are tools to actually assess what we value--critical thinking, problem-solving, writing, engagement and curiosity--and to give us support in valuing what we assess (to paraphrase Grant Wiggins and others). Independent schools may not yet have mastered or fully understood the power of Big Data, but there is growing interest in new kinds of evidence to help make decisions and to show something meaningful about things that all educators believe are important.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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