Tag Archives: grades

Data driven? Who’s driving?

balance-sheet-241711_640An article on BBC News about the Ebola outbreak got me thinking about data. In all the media reports, the virus is described as having a shockingly high 90% fatality rate. This article says that the key words in reports is “up to” and that the fatality rate is often lower. I looked up the actual figures from the WHO, and sure enough the statistics show a less than 90% rate.

In actuality, the fatality rates for the current outbreak vary quite widely, from 15% to 100%(!!), depending on what figures you choose to include. Do you look at confirmed cases? Probable? Suspected? Or do you include them all? And do you look at individual countries or average them all together?

If you look at the data broken down beyond the headline statistics, what emerges is a much more complicated picture of the Ebola outbreak. It is worse in certain areas and better in others. Depending on the response to the disease, its deadliness may be reduced and – presumably – its virulence diminished. Community practices, health care facilities, etc. all change how the disease affects people.

Unfortunately, most people don’t look that deeply at the statistics. They hear about a horrible disease, see the “90% fatal” figure and start getting hysterical. While the Ebola outbreak is a horrible and tragic event – and does look like it’s going to get much worse – such overreaction may cause individuals and nations to make costly missteps. There are deadlier diseases, and certain nations’ efforts may be more productively directed at other health issues.

For me as a teacher, this makes me think of our students’ test scores and similar data that we use to assess, group and rate them. Too often, teachers and administrators latch on to one figure and use it to determine a course of action regarding an individual student, a class or a school. A student scores at the 20th percentile on her MAP test? She needs remedial reading lessons. A class earns 90% success rate on their IB diploma scores? We should celebrate!

The truth may be far more nuanced. A closer look at the disaggregated data (if such data is available) may reveal different areas of strength and weaknesses, and might help direct intervention into more productive areas. It may also reveal that any need for intervention might be exaggerated.

Unfortunately, we often fail to get beyond the overall statistic. The student (or school or class) gets labelled as “29%” or “a 4” or whatever, and that label becomes the perceived reality.

As schools dive into “data-driven decisions,” it is well worth reflecting on what exactly the data shows us …if it shows us anything meaningful at all. It’s worth looking for more detailed, nuanced ways at looking at student performance. (Funnily enough, getting to that level of nuance might mean going back to the oldest “data-driven” performance evaluator: the classroom teacher, whose judgements are based on daily collection of various data points.)

The Student, Number 6

I am not a number, I am a free man.

I went in to school to ask about my daughter’s education. Out came a laptop and up popped a spreadsheet. There was my daughter: neatly bound in row 12. A tidy little string of numbers explaining just how she is performing as a student.

I’ve written before about the horror of grading by the numbers. Our school has moved away from that. No longer does a child get a 2 or a 1 scrawled across a paper or a report card. Teachers now use the standards-based scale of “approaching,” “proficient,” or “exemplary.” (Or, sadly, “Does not meet.”) It’s much more child-friendly and less off-putting …I guess.

However, the school has joined the worldwide craze for being data-driven. It’s no longer enough for teachers to teach, they also have to justify their teaching by producing data showing their students are progressing. And the principal and head of school must justify themselves to the school board and parents by showing students and classes across the school are improving.

So how do we show that students are improving? Testing. My child will take the MAP test three times this year. (She needed a mid-year checkup to see if she’s making enough progress to reach the end-of-year targets.) She’s also being assessed on her reading ability by testing her on her comprehension of levelled readers. (Not real books, you understand: these are only slightly better than “See spot run.”) And there are math tests. And spelling tests. And…

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.

Where is the passion? Where is the exploring? Where is the joy?

Dare I say it – where is the 21st century learning? Where is the creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Where is the collaboration? Where is the communication?

Is it there in the numbers?

Can anyone show me in that spreadsheet where my child is? Can you show me her gleeful love of life? Can you show me her obsession with sports? Can you show me her inconsistent memory? Can you show me her sensitivity? Her caring nature?

When teachers find ourselves in this new data-driven world of school, we must each decide for ourselves how we react. Do we embrace the dictate and collect as much data as we can to track our students’ progress? Do we rebel and fight against it, resisting any effort to test or quantify our students? Or can we find some middle ground?

As educators, we need to serve our students. Their success and well-being is in our hands. It is imperative that we make intelligent decisions so that not only do they succeed and improve in their abilities, but they also see learning as a positive experience. If we are not building life-long learners, then we are not doing our job well. It is simply not enough that students grow while they are in our classes, but that they will continue to grow throughout their lives.

So in this brave new world of data-driven education, who do we serve? Who is Number One? And are you prepared to serve Number Two? Or will you try to escape?

We want information.

Note: for more on The Prisoner, see: Six of One, or the BBC

The number of the beast

My daughter came home with a math test the other day. She’s got a good teacher and he’d given her feedback on individual questions like, “You understand this, but made this kind of mistake.” But there it was: on the top sheet of the test, at the top center of the page, circled to help it stand out, was a single grade.

The school uses 1-4 to measure the students’ progress towards meeting standards, and not letters A-F. Still, there it was: a “2.” All the skills represented – or not – in the test, wrapped up in one neat little number meaning “approaching standard.” And that’s what the kids pay attention to. “So-and-so got a 4,” my daughter says when asked about the test.

Why are teachers constantly trying to – and being told to – summarize students’ performance into one neat little number or letter? What does it accomplish? We’ve been grading students for centuries. Is there any reason to assign a single digit or character to a test, project, quarter, project, final exam or graduating certificate? Are we doing this because it’s what we’re used to?

Start with the example at hand: my daughter’s test. It included questions about a variety of skills. She showed some, not others. She made careless mistakes. She understood various concepts. Her teacher noted some of these in his comments. All she took away, however, is that she got a 2. And that upset her. “I’m no good at math,” she said. The number didn’t provide me as a parent with any real information. She’s “approaching standard.” Which one? How closely or quickly approaching? For what reason has she not met the standard? When would she be expected to have met the standard: now or at the end of the year?

The grade is literally meaningless.

She’s in third grade: grades aren’t that important now. Let’s move on to High School, where grades are more important. I can envision my daughter in, say, 9th grade. And she brings home her report card. In Math (or English or whatever subject you choose), she’s earned a “3” for the semester. That means she’s met the standard. Let’s assume we know the standards and so forth. What does this grade mean? Is she working hard? Is she trying her best? Is she skating along, doing the bare minimum to get a decent grade or is she working extra hard and struggling – really earning that grade? Does she enjoy the subject or is she battling it? Does she get the concepts or is she just good at mechanically following the procedures? And so forth. Again, the grade does not communicate any real meaningful information to the student or the parent.

Move further on: she’s finishing high school and taking her International Baccalaureate examinations. The IB uses a 1-7 scale, so that a 3 is no longer a good grade. At the end of the two-year program, a student earns a certificate with a grade on it for each subject, incorporating both the exam score and specific assessed coursework. I can see my daughter eagerly and nervously awaiting her final grades – which can mean admission or rejection from a university. Really good grades can mean scholarships or university credit for work done in high school. So she gets her certificate and in Mathematics (or English Language and Literature or Geography – pick one), she earns a 5. All of two years of study, research, discussions,  homework, projects, quizzes, tests, etc. wrapped up in one neat little number.

So she earns a decent grade on her certificate. She’s happy. I’m happy. Her university is happy. Presumably she shows all those qualities in that descriptor. But does this single number encapsulating two years worth of work really mean much of anything? Can two years’ worth of work and learning be wrapped up in a single number? A 5, we are told, means “A consistent and thorough understanding of the required knowledge and skills, and the ability to apply them in a variety of situations. The student generally shows evidence of analysis, synthesis and evaluation where appropriate and occasionally demonstrates originality and insight.” That sounds good, but does it actually convey anything with real meaning? If she earns a 5 in Mathematics and another 5 in Chemistry, they both have this description. Same if she gets a 5 in Visual Art. Aren’t “analysis, sythesis and evaluation” different skills in Math and Art and languages? Don’t “originality and insight” demonstrate themselves differently?

Picture this: finished with school, my daughter is working for a large bank and has been given the task of managing a portfolio of investments. She takes millions of Euro and invests it in a mix of real estate and stocks. She manages it for a year and monitors the growth of the funds carefully, studying financial forecasts and company performances, moving funds to avoid risks and maximize return. Finally, she presents the results to her boss, who says, “That’s a 6.”

It’s when you take grading and put it in a non-academic context that it really becomes meaningless. Sure, businesses rank employees and compare them regularly. But rarely is it one single number or letter that encapsulates a variety of things. Sales people might be compared by how much sales they bring in. Investors might be ranked by their rates of return. But few managers will look over an employee’s entire performance and say, “You scored a 3 last quarter while your colleague scored a 4. So she gets a bonus and you don’t.”

Why, then, are schools still using grades almost universally? (And woe betide any school that attempts to get rid of them or even simply change the form! “Is that the same as a B?” or “So what grade is my child really getting?”becomes the standard parental question.) Isn’t it really all about sorting the kids out? Deciding who’s going to get into MIT and who’s going to go to community college? Steering some into academic tracks and others into vocational ones? Choosing which ones can get a scholarship and which ones don’t make the cut? Isn’t it all about making such sorting choices a little easier and defensible, because they’re based on numbers and averages of numbers.

So here stands my daughter: beginning her long school experience of being graded.

My daughter, the “2.”