Education Opinion

Giving ‘Data’ Its Own Assessment

By Suzanne Tacheny & Linda Plattner — May 10, 2005 7 min read
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“Excuse me … what is a data?”

Education’s new darling, data, is center stage in the education reform movement. Pushed there by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the profusion of school-performance information known by the verbal shorthand “data” has become the star player in the effort to improve schools.

Overwhelmed with reports and tables, teachers are hard-pressed to separate useful information from the merely peripheral.

But the naiveté of the opening question, posed by a teacher at a recent conference, should give us data advocates pause. It reveals that the policymakers’ affection for data is not necessarily penetrating the classroom. When used well, statistical and other information helps tremendously. When used badly, it can do more harm than good.

Effective data use is a potent tool; an essential ingredient in improving schools. But data is only useful when it quickly helps educators identify and attend to teaching in areas of student need. More and more, the national conversation about reform seems to be focusing on data as an end unto itself.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at our passion for data and give our set of assumptions about data’s role some assessment of its own.

Assumption: Data creates pressure that improves teaching.

Reality: Data creates opportunities to help teachers examine what is working and not working in their classrooms.

Comparative pressure is a powerful motivator, and that motivation is part of the formula for school improvement. In the hands of a skilled leader, comparative data can challenge educators to re-examine their assumptions about what their students can accomplish. The pressure created by education reform sends some searching for real solutions, but causes others, who don’t know where to look, to hunker down, clinging to the familiar.

For data to realize its promise, it has to do more than create pressure. Too often, data is used to make the case that something needs to change, but fails to provide any assistance in understanding how to go about it. Intense pressure applied without a constructive plan to help teachers improve their teaching often introduces unproductive strategies for teachers and students: narrow test preparation, elimination of all subjects except those tested, instruction focused on only those students likely to pass the test, and others.

More care should be taken in the way we appeal to teachers. Lack of results at a school is rarely due to lack of will or care; teachers work hard doing all they know how to do. When the data offers no concrete help and instead labels them as failures, of course they rebel. Teachers are also inherently eager learners. The challenge is to couple data immediately with more effective strategies and to help teachers learn how to approach their work differently.

As passionately as we reform advocates call for pressure and public reporting, we must also advocate for support time for training aligned to standards, and for discussion among teachers about how to improve their work. Without this, we alienate teachers, the audience we most need to engage.

Assumption: High-stakes, end-of-year assessments improve teaching.

Reality: Regular use of ongoing, standards-aligned assessments improves teaching.

There is no question that high-stakes testing has helped change schooling in America. At a macro level, end-of-year tests are an important medium for public reporting and accountability. Standardized tests not only provide an annual measure of the content standards, but they also set the mark for determining how good is good enough. Good data gathered at the end of a learning cycle is a vital piece of evidence for decisionmakers who determine how to allocate district resources. Such information makes possible informed decisions about the effectiveness of instructional programs and helps determine where to focus professional-development dollars.

Used alone at the school level, however, annual tests do not provide timely information to guide school change. At best, they provide a second check on school-level data. A careful look at successful schools shows that it takes more than annual, end-of-year tests to improve schools. Those schools that improve student learning recognize that data must be valued throughout the process of teaching, not just as an end measure.

Teachers make important instructional decisions every day. The effective teacher bases these decisions on data gathered from a variety of sources, including observations, end-of-chapter tests, and careful monitoring of such factors as attendance, homework completion, and classroom involvement. When teachers work together, sharing and analyzing classroom-based information, the results are even more powerful. Collecting information about what is and is not working is only the beginning of the effort to improve schools.

Effective districts support their teachers by providing frequent, low-stakes benchmark assessments that are aligned to standards and annual tests, along with time for collegial analysis of data from several sources. Those districts and schools that are using end-of-year, high-stakes test results only miss the point. Discussions in this case foster cynicism about the usefulness of data, making it more difficult to introduce teachers to the power of using information to help their students. If teachers don’t value and use data, then data is not useful for school change.

Too often, data is used to make the case that something needs to change, but fails to provide any assistance in understanding how to go about it.
Assumption: To improve teaching, teachers need to be trained to analyze data.

Reality: To improve teaching, teachers need to talk about teaching.

While teachers do need to spend time reviewing data about their school’s performance, showing teachers how to read data tables will not improve learning. Expecting teachers to spend valuable time making sense of undigested reports and complicated charts diverts them from their core responsibility of improving student learning. And using valuable professional-development time to train teachers to decipher data distracts from the time they need to spend mastering content or strengthening teaching strategies.

Some believe that more information is always better, but that adage doesn’t hold when the goal is to focus a strategy for change. The current fascination with data has created a flood of information. Overwhelmed with reports and tables, teachers are hard-pressed to separate useful information from the merely peripheral. In the context of a school and all its distractions, more data is not a plus, it is simply confusing. Too many teachers and other educators are getting mired in the debate over what various pieces of data mean and never get to the question of what to do about the information.

Teachers need time to talk about teaching, not about data. They have too little opportunity to meet with colleagues to discuss student work, the content they are teaching, and effective strategies for delivering that content. When these opportunities do come, data should guide the conversation by spotlighting areas in need of improved instructional methods and strategies. But it should not be the conversation. If statistics show that students are weak in science, teachers need to talk about science.

When teachers need extensive training to understand a data tool or a report, this is an indicator that too little thought was invested in that tool’s design. The challenge is to give teachers practical information that is easily understood and immediately useful. For data to deliver on its promise, test publishers, state and district assessment directors, and creators of technology data tools have more work to do to make data make sense.

A two-page, strategically focused report is far more effective than tomes of research. It also takes more work to create the right two pages, but this is time well spent. Data, clearly presented, can point teachers to areas of student need and answer the question, “What should I do differently?” Without that answer, data is only doing half its job.

Enormous progress has been made in putting systems into place to measure performance in public education. To harvest the power of the data we collect, policymakers and educational leaders must move beyond viewing information as a tool to rank, pressure, and punish, and instead put in place programs and resources that help teachers learn to value and use a variety of data.

Whatever the source—test, analysis of schoolwide trends, or technology tool—policymakers, educational publishers, and district-level leaders must turn data into a sharper tool for teachers by providing pertinent information in an easily understandable format. This will allow teachers to focus on instructional implications rather than on the data itself.

So, what’s “a data”? It’s a powerful tool that enables teachers to discuss their student’s strengths and weakness more specifically, to readily know where to find resources that strengthen their teaching, and to feel pride when they can show evidence that their hard work is making a difference for their students. But it is those things only when it connects to student learning.


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