Finding the Just Right Data Balance

What is the just right balance of standardized data vs. the data we collect on our own? Could we do without one or the other? Will you explore this question with me?

Late last week, President Obama declared that there is in fact too much testing in our educational system. This is a landmark announcement for many reasons, not the least of which is that it shows the power parents, teachers, and students have in influencing political leaders.

Ironically, this week I found myself longing for some concrete data to use while creating homogenous reading groups in my classroom. Due to a state-level embargo on our PARCC testing scores from last year, this is the first year since I started teaching that I did not have a state data packet to use. This longing points to the fact that while there may be too much testing, the data that testing yields has value in our classrooms.

So what is the just right balance of data collection for our schools?

This is perhaps the biggest question in education right now. Within its subtext lies the philosophical debate about standards, teacher evaluation, federal vs. state control…the list could go on.

Those that oppose testing argue that it takes away from instructional time in classrooms. This is true. Those that support testing argue that standardized testing provides a set of objective data that allows a large and unwieldy system to navigate towards a standard of success. This is also true.

It seems the problem is figuring out what kind of data is necessary and then determining how best to gather it.

I am not here to argue that the system we have is working. Last year’s testing schedule was out of control. For the first time ever, seniors were tested on Social Studies and Science material. Our poor juniors were required to sit through two rounds of PARCC tests as well as the ACT. Even our 9th and 10th grade students, who have been trained to test from a young age, had almost an entire additional week lost from instructional time to facilitate the new online testing.

However, there is something nice about having an objective sense of where students are in regards to skills when they enter my class.

There are things I can do to gather some of this data on my own, but I don’t have a background in psychometrics, nor do I have confidence in myself to gather the same amount of specific data that is provided by standardized assessments.

This year, as a part of our state evaluation system, my common course team and I were asked to create a teaching plan that would allow us to monitor student growth.

Without state testing data, we started from scratch, collecting baseline data on student writing ability and then table grading to norm our expectations. From there, we created growth targets based on the conceptual understanding we wanted our students to master and then demonstrate at the end of the semester.

This was really good professional conversation and has led to really focused and meaningful teaching. However, the numbers that I chose, based on data that I collected, will be the basis for half of my evaluation this spring.

This makes me really nervous. The high stakes nature of our evaluation system seems too intense for me to have that much control over.

I know that for some, this is a sad statement of how entrenched teachers of my generation have become in the world of standards and standardization.

As many of my peers argue, I should be celebrating how much control I have over my individual evaluation. Part of me is, for sure. But I also want to make sure that all of my students are having an equal chance to grow and recognize that by nature of teaching English, my grading has elements of subjectivity. And until I can figure out how to eradicate that in my own practice, I will continue to explore the answer to my question.

In the meantime, I look forward to watching and engaging in the process of defining what this balance looks like in my classroom, building, and state (especially if we can figure out how to make my fellow blogger, Sandy Merz’s idea take off!). Will you join me?

Picture Attribution: By Anto475 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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