Tag Archives: testing

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

Testing, Testing

Here they sit, hundreds of them: lined up in neat rows, with a good meter of space all around each of them. Silently hunched over their desks: pen in hand, paper scattered over their desk. Adults walking up and down the rows, offering extra paper or pens, answering questions, ensuring silence, diligence, compliance.

It’s final exam time. In this room, hundreds of students. Around the world, millions. All earnestly, feverishly, worriedly, working at writing essays, choosing the correct letter, ticking the right boxes.

For what?

I’ve been a teacher for two decades, and I’ve been a student for even longer. I’ve taken plenty of exams and I’ve assigned and graded quite a few. And I really do not know why.

What is the purpose? What value is there in the process, the experience?

The only argument that I’ve ever heard that makes sense is that “the students need to be prepared for IB exams” or university exams. But that’s just an example of getting hit on the head lessons: the students have to go through a painful experience so that when they get the painful experience later on, they’ll be able to do it right.

Why do we do it? What’s it all for?

I honestly do not know the answer.