Thursday, June 16, 2016

Data is Dangerous for Students

Why data is dangerous for students - one teacher's observations about how data affects her students - opinion piece from Raki's Rad Resources

Data, data, data. The world of education is currently ruled by data. Data is a way to show that students are “growing” and prove that we are doing what is right for the students.

I know that data is supposed to be the lifeblood of education, but I have a few specific qualms with data:

1.)   Time lost for instruction and planning – In order for data to be valid you must have multiple data points. This means taking time during class for students to take multiple assessments and then taking planning time to analyze and triangulate data. Often once we are done analyzing and triangulating data, creating graphs and working through the steps to figure out who needs help with what, we come up with a list of students that we could have predicted from basic classroom observations. So while it’s nice to have “proof” that what we’re doing is correct, is all that time spent really necessary to tell us to do what we would have probably done anyways?

2.)   Increased student anxiety – Kids know that these tests they take are being tracked. Even if we take the time to tell them that these are just checkpoints and nothing for them to stress over, (which is often a lie because more and more decisions are being made that affect student and teacher careers based off of assessments that were only ever meant to inform instruction) students worry about how they are doing. Or the flipside happens and students just start to have the idea that they will never hit the milestone or pass the test and so they begin to not even try.

3.)   Students and teachers are being punished for things outside of their control – Teaching in low income schools, I know that the playing field is not level. Many students from low income areas come in without the same background knowledge that their high income peers come in with. This means that their reading comprehension is affected, and that they will not have the same understanding of basic principles of math as other students. This does not mean that they cannot learn, by any means. However, it does mean that they will often score lower on standardized assessments. Because they traditionally score lower, low income students are often subjected to more test prep and boxed curriculum that is “research based”. What they do not receive is what they were lacking in the first place – experiential knowledge. The more assessments we have to prep them for, the less time there is for giving them exposure to quality literature, field trips and science experiments. Holding teachers responsible to student growth on these tests creates an environment of anxiety and resentment and often leads the best teachers to flee the schools that need them the most.

Unfortunately as teachers, even though we know these facts, we have very little control over what is expected of us in regards to data. We do have control over our attitude towards data, especially when dealing with our students. We need to stress to the students that data is not the sum total of who they are. Data is simply a checkpoint to see if we’re on the right track. Students should have access to the data, but it should not be the focus point of their every day. If we as teachers take the focus off of data and put the focus onto learning, the students will follow our lead.

We also need to be advocates for our students, as much as we possibly can. This is becoming more and more difficult because advocating for our students often means putting ourselves and our livelihoods at risk. We give students tests we don't agree with because to refuse to give the test would mean losing our jobs. However, the more outspoken we are about using data collection correctly, the more likely that policy will eventually change to benefit our students. Even if it's just within your classroom or your school, pushing for one less test or one more appropriate reporting method, you can still be an advocate for your students. Push them and society to see that students are more than just a test score!

I recently read the articles What's at Risk When Schools Focus Too Much on Student Data? and How Some School 'Data Walls' Violate US Privacy Laws which have some great additional points on why the focus on data is getting to be dangerous for our students. As you are finishing up this school year, or preparing for next school year, take some time to think about how you are using data and how you are advocating for your students. What do you want to continue doing? What do you want to change? As teachers our focus should always be on how we can help our students as much as possible. Sometimes our own reflections can give us a better understanding of this than all of the data graphs in the world.