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Redeeming Data

Awhile back, I wrote in a journal:

Sometimes I miss the days when Data was simply an innocuous android providing practical help aboard a future Utopian starship rather than a justification for labeling, judging and marginalizing students in a one-size-fits-all system.  Come to think of it, perhaps Data never was all that innocuous in the first place.  Perhaps, if we consider a revisionist history (maybe A People’s History of the United Federation of Planets) of the Enterprise, we would see it less as exploration and more as exploitation.  We’d recognize that the clean, wealthy, utopian fantasy colonizing the galaxies in the name of “freedom” isn’t a bad metaphor of most of what passes as education reform.

I once wrote a slam poem during a staff meeting with the lines, “data whores pimped by tests and scores.”  I’m not a great slam poet, but it captured my feelings in the moment.  I hate Data.  I hate the calm, rational way that he runs the ship, pretending that we are the captains when in fact he has hijacked the ship and is leading into an imaginary race to the top – to wherever the Hell “no man has gone before,” colonizing a child’s mind in the name of freedom. A perverse Orwelian experiment.

*     *     *

I’m sitting at a computer staring at the spreadsheet, picking apart the data I see with a student.  It’s not data-driven, per se, but data-informed.  Yes, the tests are standardized.  Sure, they have a numerical value attached and if I so desire I can rank them with the click of a sort-function on Google Spreadsheets.  What happened? How did I move from an anti-colonial tirade to using standardized data in my own classroom?

I’m seeing the redemptive side to data.  If I’m using data as a diagnostic tool, as a part, albeit a small part, of the larger holistic picture of my students then it’s worth it.  I care about my students.  It’s only the close of the second week and I feel a connection to them I have never felt before with a class.  I have no intention of judging and ranking and sorting.  Still,  I stare at the spreadsheet because I know I’m missing something.

The student scored high on AIMS and Galileo, but only on the questions regarding comprehension.  His fluency score is off the charts, but he makes many mistakes.  So, as crazy as this sounds, I offer him a nonsense word test and he fails.  I realize that he can access the higher-level thinking questions only when he hears them.  Although he is a great critical thinker, he struggles with some of the academic language. So, I ask him a few questions about academic language and he knows the word verbally but cannot read the words in print.

This boy struggles with phonics.  He’s memorized many site words, but now he’s running into words often associated with critical thinking and he cannot read them.  After some work with blending multisyllabic words, he is able to access the academic language. It’s true that I could have used qualitative measures the entire time, but the reality is that I wouldn’t have thought of it on my own.  I would have assumed incorrectly that the real issue had everything to do with critical thinking or academic language vocabulary and nothing to do with phonics.

Yes, Data can be pale, overly logical and often unhelpful, but I’m glad he’s joined my ship, because without his input I might have guessed the student was experienced as a critical thinker.  I’m realizing that the issue doesn’t have to be binary. I don’t have to be either a data-obsessed, textbook-conglomerate-loving, basal-reader-endorsing robot.  But I also don’t have to be a “let the kiddos spend the day in the sandbox and hope that they learn” teacher either.

I might be able to take a clue from my geeky childhood and recognize that the solution should be to try and humanize Data rather than turn my children into androids in a colonizing starship in the quest for freedom-through-coercion. Interact with Data honestly, openly and recognize the limitations. Allow Data to help inform decisions and offer a somewhat vague, logical picture.  Just don’t let him be the judge or the captain.

Note: This post can also be found on my blog The Best Part of Teaching, which is a daily journal I keep of why I enjoy teaching.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “Redeeming Data

  1. First, a counterpoint: kids are always learning; the problem isn’t with the kids being in the sandbox all day, but with adults neither recognizing nor valuing what the kids are learning. I suspect that we could learn more from a sandbox in a classroom than a set of textbooks.

    Second, a caveat: There are many ways to collect information about a student and her learning. Standardized measures are convenient, but they don’t offer any information a teacher couldn’t get from working through student-centered, inquiry- and/or passion-driven learning opportunities with students. Maybe it’s worth drawing a distinction here between assessment tools that help solve people’s learning problems and assessment tools that help solve people’s political ones.

    Third, a memory: John, I’m reminded of this post from Joe and your comment on it.

    Finally, a question: Do you value last year’s reading scores enough to support the test’s continued use? What equally useful performance assessment could you imagine to fill its place?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 28, 2010, 2:37 pm
  2. A few points to each of these points:
    1. I have no problem with kids being in the sandbox. My own children spend hours outdoors. I also have no problem with them being in a classroom as long as the learning is meaningful.
    2. The value of standardized assessment data is that it offers a new perspective. It’s not as good quality-wise and I would never place it above my own interactions with children.
    3. I haven’t changed my teaching style. A simple glimpse of my class proves it’s pretty much a constructivist-based classroom. I do, however, see a point in using a one-minute words-per-minute test as a diagnostic tool or a nonsense word test for that matter. They have a place in providing decent diagnostic data. I think schools should devote about ten minutes a year on a few standardized tests. Anything above it is a waste of time.
    4. Ultimately, what I consider to be my true assessment tool is the portfolio students use. I might use a standardized test as a diagnostic tool, but only for formative assessment and only if a student is struggling in some area. Beyond that, the tests are still a waste of time.

    Posted by johntspencer | August 28, 2010, 3:18 pm
  3. I was thinking about this today and wondered….

    What if STD were optional? What if they were just part of a teachers list of ways to help children learn? The best said test can be produced, just like a text book or said education book… and they were offed but not mandated. How would this change them?

    Like John I can see the use of a spelling test as a tool or a math test as a game, but would never hold as more than a small percent of my assessment. Like John said a different perspective…

    On another note… I realized we are taught to think of the world in Multiple choice answers from an early age. Watch any “educational” children show and they use often 4 choices and work the child in an interactive way through picking the right answer…. sad to say even Sesame street does this……..

    The ability to sort is important but so is so much more…… I think we can teach sorting better and faster in other ways than tests. The question we might be able to ask back “Are test really the best tool to get to the so called DATA that we need?”
    I don’t think it is; I am guess you both agree…. actually I know you do and I did not need a test to find that out…..

    Either way I think this is a good discussion to have.

    Also recommend watching this video with lens of the education reform movement…

    Posted by dloitz | August 29, 2010, 12:05 am
  4. I feel compelled to make a comment about Data. Data yearned to be human, to have human emotions, to intuit. He sought out theater and acted in plays on the holodeck because he so wanted to experience the human drama for himself. Data wanted to understand the breadth and depth of humanity and not to be confined to his programming. Doesn’t this say something about his own recognition of the limits of intellectual knowing and his desire for knowledge that comes through the heart?

    Posted by Zoe Weil | August 30, 2010, 10:47 pm
  5. What I hear here is a conversation about how we claim authority around our professional knowing. How do we know what we know, and how do we show it? What are the components of knowing? And who is authorized to validate our professional knowing? How?

    I think the big issue in this larger conversation is how we step up and TAKE CHARGE of that discourse. This underlies the LA Times story.

    And as Zoe points out, the world out there is what we dream it.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 2, 2010, 11:24 am

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