Education Funding Opinion

Is Data Driving us into a Dead End?

By Anthony Cody — January 27, 2011 3 min read
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Earlier this week, I posted an essay that offered some examples of meaningful student outcomes that I feel we ought to offer as part of our response to the question “If you do not like standardized test scores, what DO you want to use to measure student achievement?” The comments have been interesting, and one, from Pio, was as follows:

I reject the false tradeoff of teaching BASIC skills at the expense of teaching critical thinking, increasing student engagement, etc. Very good teachers and great teachers teach the basics and these other important components of learning as well.
Standardized tests like NAEP set a pretty low bar for what is labeled "Proficient." The general public rightly demands that this low bar be achieved. (Note: It is a fair criticism that teachers are not the only players in getting students to achieve this low bar - parents, neighborhoods, school administrators, and others need to do more too).
The idea that there are millions of students for whom teachers have instilled a love of learning and the ability to think critically but these same students aren't NAEP "proficient" and can't score higher than a 400 on each part of the SAT is just silly.
Very good and great teachers have always rejected this false tradeoff and I suspect they always will.
Being "data-driven" is not some mindless, robotic task. It means using data to improve instruction and to improve student outcomes. Being data-driven doesn't imply using only one source of data or one kind of data as bsmith points out below. However...
bsmith: You want to get rid of the word "accountability"? Your idea is far, far out of step with the mainstream. I do agree that the transparency you are promoting could result in a better-informed public who, perhaps, would focus less on standardized test scores. But the drive for accountability will still persist.
Anthony, your article proposes some excellent models to improve student outcomes. I challenge you to use, for example, the Oakland history teachers example to both teach the basics as well as go beyond.
There are very few kids who can write a decent paper "respond[ing] to a question while drawing on evidence from a selection of primary historical documents" yet not be proficient on very, very basic tests. It's not a tradeoff.

This is a familiar argument in defense of the standardized testing regime.
The tests represent a floor, not a ceiling, and there is nothing to prevent teachers from teaching more advanced skills, such as critical thinking and analysis. All we ask is that they teach the basics - and we have tests that hold them accountable for that.

Now it is true that you may get better overall scores if you do NOT teach to the test, especially if the tests extend beyond simple recall and multiple choice. There was a fascinating study released in England last summer that sheds light on this. The researchers cited several experiments that help us understand what is occurring.

In one study, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn. Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students' learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils' exam results.
A further study, of 4,203 students, showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.

So why don’t teachers simply do what is right, and what Pio and Arne Duncan suggest, and stop teaching to the test?

Chris Watkins, one of the researchers in England, offers a clue:

Ministers have placed teachers under so much pressure to ensure students perform well in national exams that they increasingly talk at their pupils, rather than talk to them and ask them open questions, he said. The latter leads students to deepen their learning and perform at their optimum.

The troubles stem from the ever rising stakes we attach to test scores, in the false belief that if we simply apply more and more pressure, results will follow.
If you say you want A, B and C as outcomes, but you only attach high stakes to A and B, guess what happens to C in a pressurized environment? At schools where the socioeconomic environment prepares students to do well in school, teachers can attend to all aspects of learning without sacrificing as much - although many report things deteriorating here as well. But in many schools which are under the NCLB hammer, on the ticking timetable whereby if they do not meet ever-rising proficiency targets within a few years, the principal and perhaps half the staff will be fired, the pressure to increase scores begins to drive every decision. This explains why many schools have eliminated PE, Art, even history and science, because they do not weigh much on the tests. And instruction even in tested subjects hews closely to the test, so as to be of maximum efficiency.

I do not write about this from some ivory tower position, speculating about what might be happening in our schools. I have worked in a district with many low-performing schools for the past 24 years, and served as a mentor and coach for many teachers. Last year, the school board took the extraordinary step of telling each elementary school that they ought to schedule at least an hour of science a week. This was necessary because many low-performing elementary schools had schedules that included no time for science at all. History and art have no such mandates, and are not a part of the curriculum at many schools.

This year we have a Science/History Project-Based Learning Collaborative program, where we have a group of science and history teachers working together to plan rich projects for our students. One of the participants has students who were in the classroom of a test-focused science teacher last year. Her students complain about all the work they are asked to do for their projects. They say “It was much better last year. Ms. X told us what would be on the test, and we studied it, and we did really well. Why don’t you just teach us what will be on the tests. This is too hard!”

Unfortunately, in our current paradigm, often it is the teacher that emphasizes test preparation, assuming he or she “teaches like a champion” and gets good test scores, that is regarded as the most effective. The ability of our students to work autonomously and in collaboration with others, to communicate and think critically is not often measured or rewarded by any of our current “accountability” systems. That is why it is necessary for us to advocate alternatives like the ones I have proposed.

What do you think? Can we avoid a trade-off between test preparation and deeper instruction? Or do the high stakes attached to tests make this inevitable?

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