Monday, August 12, 2013

Data Dilemma: Students Are Not Dots

Regression - cc art and flickr photo by azjd

Uh oh.  I am beginning this post with a disclaimer - the opinions expressed here are my own and may, or may not, represent those of my current employer.  This might not be a good thing.

Data driven.  A term that gets thrown around a lot in the world of education.  I prefer the phrase "data informed."  Let me explain.

As a school administrator, I analyze more quantitative data than I would care to admit.  I use it as a tool to gauge our progress as a school.  Progress toward what, you might ask?  I think you know what's coming -- progress toward what the state perceives to be the ultimate measure of school success: a standardized test.  So what happens when the data suggests a particular course of action that might benefit the school, as a whole, but may not be in the best interest of all students?  What do you do as a teacher?  As a school leader?  What price are you willing to pay to improve a state assigned letter grade?  Are you willing to extrapolate teaching practice, and decision making, from data derived from standardized test results?  Is there a way to balance the best interest of students with the pursuit of proficient test scores?

Collecting, and analyzing, data is a critical part of the reflective process in education.  It can be good formative practice.  However, there is a natural tendency to think of data as numbers, tables, charts, lines and dots on a graph -- disassociated from the students that we teach.  Evaluating this numerical information can provide insights into our teaching, and perhaps student performance, but let's not forget that our students are not dots on a chart.  Data can be so much more: our observations, conversations, student writing, art work, and creative endeavors.  It might be something a parent tells us, or a student's attitude and demeanor.  It is this qualitative data that humanizes the students we teach, allowing us to truly individualize instruction, taking into account the best interest of the child.  Many of the decisions we make should be data informed, but "driven" is a pretty strong word.

What we really need is data informed, but "student driven" decision making.  But, can that exist in the current era of high stakes testing and accountability?

I have more questions than answers.

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