School Reform: Testing and Data — Does the Tail Wag the Dog? Part B

Summary: A continuation of the last post which explores the relationship between testing, the data it collects, and the legitimate role and limits of both in school reform.

Already the digital data perspective has altered how we think of and evaluate teaching, as a response to America’s poor test results in comparison with our industrialized peers. Traditionally an ancient narrative in which one human inspires another, teaching in the current climate seeks greater science in the promotion of academic growth. Testing, and the data about individual students thereby produced, is believed to hold a key to growing those students who have too long languished and fallen out of the economic race.

A current hot button among ranks of teachers and school reformers alike is the use of the student test data to evaluate teachers. Intuitively a reasonable shift of emphasis, and an introduction of data driven research into a complex topic, nonetheless teacher types and their unions have often resisted the change. Let’s face it — there is fear of the change and apprehension in many teacher hearts that they may not be up to the challenge.

Panicked arguments rise in rebuttal, but underneath the extremity of the resistance there are legitimate questions about how the data developed is to be applied, many of which can be traced to the implicit fairness or otherwise of the means of measurement.

What if my students are overwhelmingly of low income or otherwise troubled backgrounds? What if I am given too little support in aide time or curricula for my struggling students? What if my students had an inferior teacher in the previous year? How does the data model account for poor school leadership, district leadership, or the inadequacy of curricula? How is a high school social studies teacher, who has students perhaps one hour a day for one semester, to be evaluated by student data? Does the test score model apply only to elementary schools?  How will cheating by teachers under scrutiny be detected?

Should the model be applied school-wide, as a measure of the success of the overall school building quality, and in the process reinforce collegial longer term thinking, rather than the efforts of one teacher with one classroom for one year?

Though such questions may originate in resistance, to ignore them is to risk missing important ingredients. The fight over the use of test scores in evaluation is many parts power struggle; too much power struggle and the subtleties that can spell the difference between failure and a quality reform may be overlooked.

Teaching by teachers and the learning by students is a complex interchange; perhaps we should be wary that the introduction of data in the form of test scores somehow will be the magic bullet that alone will transform our schools; take care lest we be seduced by simplicity; do not confuse a useful tool with an answer.

As with Oakland Athletics baseball and cost issues in medical care (see last post), in education we have arrived on troubled terrain at the convergence of historical streams. The myth of opportunity for low income children and the crisis in their welfare coincides with our economic need to prepare such students for the jobs that will make them contributors to the economy rather than unproductive brakes upon it. Both streams are at risk.

The argument is not that we shouldn’t use the exponential growth in computing power and the data that springs from the capability. We should use it. Simply recognize its limitations.


Data does not drive decisions; humans do. For perspective on the current hyper focus on data in education, I find it useful to employ a metaphor much removed from schools.

Briefly, fracking is a process by which chemicals and high pressure water is used to break rock deep underground, thereby creating fissures in the rock through which oil otherwise trapped can be channeled to the surface. Such oil bearing rock deposits are widespread in this country and elsewhere; the new technology promises to relieve us of our dependence on overseas oil, and continue our ability to rely on petroleum for our energy needs longer than we thought a few short years ago.

Of course, there is a downside, beginning with questions about contamination of ground water supply, and extending to reliance on the same fossil sources that fuel global warming.

Thus, fracking is a case study of how human decision making might make use of one set of data, but ignore other countervailing data.

The metrics of our consumption of oil and our costs in military adventure to ensure supply from overseas is more sophisticated and immediate in a temporal sense than the lament for the earth, still more the stuff of distant alarm than of hard headed data, at least in the composite political imagination.

We will need to see how our economy will suffer palpably in data driven ways by the migration of species (or their failure to do so quickly enough), the rising of the oceans, and the onset of dustbowls in former bread baskets.

We are too short sighted to act on such data too distant to our myopic gaze. Data will perhaps transform only when it arrives in our face too late or when we are on the eve of crisis, when the problem compels near term solution.

At the current moment, only the disappearance of oil reserves and dependence on foreign oil is perceived as a crisis, no doubt accentuated by oil company profit motives, and abetted by worried politicians.

Richard Manning in his fine article in the last month’s Harper’s illustrates the dilemma by placing the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Conservation, at his Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. Nearby, fracking boom towns flourish and enormous money is being made. The Missouri and the Little Missouri have flooded recently, have inundated slush ponds designed to hold the toxic refuse of oil operations, and have carried the contaminants downstream, to affect the environment, people of small towns and large, fish and other wildlife in ways subtle but deleterious. Such quiet carnage is increasingly documented by the work of medical investigators and environmental scientists alike, but with little widespread avail in the face of immediate economic imperative.

In fact, we probably do have solid enough projective data about the future consequences of human alteration of the earth to play close attention to it, but too few of us act on the information by adjusting our habits to a requisite degree, and so are guilty of contemporary pleasures at the expense of the future welfare of our descendants, a willful blindness we pass on to those politicians who would represent us. Manning is an honest enough man to note his personal irony. As he does his daily run through the Badlands near Elkhorn Ranch, he wears polypropylene and fleece, both derivative of petroleum, and has traveled by petroleum fueled auto and airplane to research his story. Guilty as charged we all.

We listen to the data when we begin to fear because it seems to offer a solid direction; otherwise, we maintain a selective attention.

To what extent has our current obsession with testing and our use of the data it produces distorted our perception of how to reform American schools and elevate the prospects of kids who struggle? How often in education do we cycle from the growth of an idea, to its enshrinement, and then to its decline and rejection, all without discernible progress?


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