How to Make Education Data Desirable

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By Dr. Beverly Carbaugh 

In education, data has gotten a bad rap. But it doesn’t have to be this way if we understand that good data actually improves learning.  It’s time to shift the conversation, and we can do that by understanding the underlying concerns, disseminating comprehensible school data to communities, and developing professional learning environments in schools that benefit from the focused and practical uses of classroom data.

Our Common Data Concerns

Teachers and parents almost unanimously agree that we’ve gone overboard with too much testing. And they worry, equally, about what all this testing data is used for and who has access to it.  Privacy is a valid concern. Many parents don’t really know how to read the state test data, and then they don’t know what actually happens to that data or how it’s used after their child takes the test. We could certainly improve the situation with better communication to help parents decode their kids’ test scores and understand how teachers use test data to improve their planning and instruction.

Teachers also worry that state test scores are too high stakes – in many states, test data determines a percentage of their evaluation scores. Another drawback is that end-of-year data lags so late in the educational year that it’s impossible for teachers to effectively change instruction for the actual group of students tested.

Teachers can use data from statewide tests to analyze a number of factors, but none that relate to their current students.  There must be a better way to track student progress than a high-stakes test that happens once a year.

School leaders would generally like more input into the testing process. In many cases they are merely compelled to comply with mandates of their state system. The testing burden stresses a school in terms of personnel to administer and oversee the testing process and to provide the right accommodations to meet the special needs of identified students to guarantee each student optimal testing conditions.

All these concerns should be addressed, but none of them are insurmountable. There are lots of good reasons to collect and analyze data.

The Upside of Data

Most of the education “data wars” don’t take place at the level of the school building level but rather at the funding and political levels. What often gets overlooked in these debates is that data has a positive practical use at the level of individual schools. When schools use data in true professional learning environments, there is no gap between data and practice. At Learning Sciences International, we have helped schools develop such professional learning environments, where teams of teachers work together in their PLCs or LTMs to analyze and discover what data reveals about the effectiveness of their instruction.

These teachers aren’t looking at “what is wrong” with their students. They’re using a rigorous process to develop an environment where data are analyzed and viewed as a useful resource for making instructional decisions, planning lessons, and designing interventions. This use of data is very different from data that determines or factors into teacher evaluation or pay.

To redeem data’s reputation in schools, we need to go beyond fear. This can be done on a larger scale by conducting research and making data understandable to all stakeholders, including parents. Focusing in on day-to-day learning in a classroom, we can use data to support teachers to become more reflective and adaptive to their students needs.  Used this way, data becomes a win-win.