While most school leaders view reviewing student data in professional learning communities (PLCs) to be essential, most teachers view these meetings as a waste of time. (Gates Foundation, 2014). Here are three objections to data that I hear frequently from teachers that I encourage all leaders like you to validate and explore. As always, if you’d like to know more about this or any other content on the blog, click here and let me know how to get in touch.
“You can make data tell any story you want.”
When I think about the number of times an agency manipulated cuts off scores to make student performance appear worse than it was, or reported meaningless “percent passing” scores without reporting scaled scores over time, or even adjusted the scale on graphs to exaggerate or minimize change over time, I absolutely understand skepticism towards data.
However, using data for self-serving ends is not the same as understanding that using data involves nuance, context, and multiple perspectives. For example, if scaled scores on a standardized math exam are going down year over year, there are likely several reasons why and dozens of rational solutions. Nevertheless, the fundamental truth is that the yearly scaled score trend in math is down. It is our job to decide if that matters and what we should do.
“Youth are not a number.”
This is absolutely true. It is impossible to reduce any human person to a point on a graph. Behind each set of data are a set of people with lungs that breath, hearts that beat, and souls that nurture their own aspirations. Our youth are definitely not numbers. It would be more accurate to say, “Our numbers are our youth.”
While no data point completely describes the powerful and wonderful dignity of each human person we serve, our data do capture discrete—yet important—aspects of how youth experience what we offer them. Dismissing data dismisses that experience, and diminishes our understanding of our youth.
“We shouldn’t teach to a test.”
Teaching to a test happens when a test drives what students learn, causing anything that can’t be measured on a test disappears from the curriculum. This is becomes more dangerous the further the “test-makers” are from the “test-takers.” Consider Pearson, a multinational corporation specializing in testing, where “half its $8 billion in annual global sales comes from its North American education division.” This was in 2015, and the trend hasn’t reversed. States set standards, multinational corporations decide how to assess standards, and classroom teachers have to decide whether to equip their students for success on Pearson’s exams or to help them master developmentally appropriate content. And sometimes, those goals do not align.
The non profit version of this saying might be, “We shouldn’t chase numbers.” And no, I do not recommend that schools I work with adopt a test as a curriculum or that nonprofits I work with focus on data targets to the exclusion of what matters to their clients. Rather, what schools and nonprofits can do when faced with tests and program targets set by someone else is to equip their students/clients to succeed on portions of test and program targets that matter most. More likely than not, the rest can safely be ignored so long as growth occurs where it needs to happen.
Too often, data incriminates more than elevates caring professionals in schools and nonprofits, making resistance to data is common. Moving beyond resistance involves validating the truth of these objections to data and communicating a comprehensive, life-giving approach to incorporating data into our work.