Data Junkfood. Is Your School Eating It?

If you live on the west coast and you are in any way connected with education, you know of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. As an acronym, we see this in our written communication as SBAC. When we speak of it, we say Ess-Back, which manifests in my mind as a coiled, hissing snake, or perhaps a maligned Harry Potter character, embittered by years of living in ostracized seclusion with a painful spinal disfigurement.

The SBAC is a bit of a shadowy figure. I have taught in two states and internationally. I have attended and given workshops in dozens of venues and with hundreds, maybe thousands of colleagues from around the world. Daily, I read literature on the subject of education. But I cannot recall ever meeting someone who admits to working for or on the SBAC. Which is weird, considering that nearly every single student on the west coast, over the course of several grueling days, takes the SBAC exam in the spring. Weird, considering that the federal government has threatened to retract millions and millions of dollars in federal funding from the states, districts, and schools who opt out of the exam. Weird, since almost all of our professional development is carried out with SBAC results in the backs of our minds.

When the stakes are this high, it would stand to reason that teachers and administrators have a voice in, or at least a rudimentary understanding of how the data is collected and calculated. After all, the numbers will publicly reveal holes in our credibility as professionals and later guide the mandatory professional learning we pay for with our time and energy. However, when I look closely at my students’ data, as summarized by this one-shot test administered long before the year is even over, I do not feel like I have learned much that will help me improve as an educator. If anything, I might even feel a little bit messed with.

Here’s what I mean specifically:

student-a

What you just looked at in confusion is a page from my student roster report, courtesy of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The colored numbers represent each student’s overall score on the exam. Trust me, there are some red numbers on other pages. That aside, I think most of my colleagues would agree that within the first six weeks of the school year, any mediocre teacher can predict, with about a 90% degree of accuracy, the number that is likely to accompany each name on the roster when we receive the results the following year. However, good teachers are interested in why each student earned the score that they earned. If trends emerge over time—gaps in particular standards, for example—maybe we can work with that information to improve our craft in the long run.

The SBAC sort of breaks things down for us. Notice the four categories of reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry in the roster report above. That’s almost helpful. But what about the fact that Student A and Student B performed identically within each of the four categories, yet received two different overall scores?

I understand that small variances in performance in each category can lead to a difference in overall scores. But if this is the case, I might expect Student A to be hanging precariously close to a 2. And I might surmise that Student B had a good day and punched above weight towards a 3. But if we zoom in closer, we see this is not the case at all:

student-a

Student B.png

Student A was quite a distance from a 2. Student B is actually closer to a 1 than a 3. But as far as the roster report tells me, these students have nearly the same score across the board in reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry. I understand that a 2 and a 3 have different ranges, blah, blah, blah, but this is annoying to me. It is confusing. The data actually makes me understand these students less than I did before attempting to analyze it.

Data like this is terrifying to those teachers whose evaluations and salaries are tied to these ambiguous and flawed results. Many of those teachers will not be in the profession much longer. They are already leaving in droves.

Data like this is also terrifying to good administrators. They are under immense pressure from politicians to look at these numbers and develop plans of action that impact thousands of students. But what good is a plan if the data that guides it is so questionable?

And maybe this data should be disconcerting to you, even if you are not an educator. Your tax dollars are paying for the design and implementation of the test, including all of the technology infrastructure and personnel required to implement it in every school across your state.

But let’s back up for a moment. I am not here to rant against the Common Core Standards or against standardized testing as a whole. I think both can serve as powerful tools that will improve instruction. And maybe the people in charge of the SBAC are decent humans who have learning rather than profit at the core of their beliefs. Maybe someday I’ll meet one of them and I can find out.

But in the meantime, I feel it is my duty as an educational leader to identify a problem, which I think I have done, and then to propose some possible solutions. So here are a few solutions:

Students: Your teachers know the exam can be frustrating, tedious, and painful. However, please do your best. And please behave in a way that allows the people around you to do their best too. Think of that teacher or coach who has gone out of their way for you, even if it just offering you a kind word when you needed it. Dedicate your performance to them. Forget about that teacher who you think is kind of a jerk. In fact, maybe have some empathy for them. They have been pitted against you by the system, been told they are failing you in every possible way, and as a result, many of them go home and cry. Then they work until they fall asleep.

Parents: If you opt your child out, you are actually just causing more problems for everyone. Administrators and teachers have to figure out something to do with your son or daughter while he or she is not taking the test, which means they will probably end up sitting in some holding pen while supervised by an overworked secretary. Obviously, we know this is a terrible scenario, but we are not sure what you expect when every teacher and administrator in the building is occupied with proctoring the high-stakes exam you just opted out of.

Teachers: We need to draw the curtain away to see who pulls the levers that operate the fireballs and smoke that are pouring out of the machine at you. Maybe the SBAC people have good intentions but are just tragically misguided. Or maybe they are draconian profiteers who need to be exposed. In the meantime, support one another and keep learning. We don’t need to be perfect at what we do, but we can be better at what we do.

Administrators: We need to help construct a culture that allows for Professional Learning Communities. Effective ones that produce usable data. This might mean we push harder for a restructured school week with sufficient time built in for teachers to plan, collaborate, and analyze data. One hour a day is not cutting it anymore. This also might mean we need to get in there with teachers and use the tools they are using with the students they are interacting with to see the reality. As school leaders, many of us left the classroom before No Child Left Behind and before the technology revolution that completely transformed instruction and feedback. We are unforgivably out of touch. We have become the mouthpiece of politicians and massive corporations, when the information should be flowing in the other direction. Let’s remember whom we are here to support.

Superintendents, School Boards, and all other Politicians: Look closely at the budgets. Really closely. Factor in the technology costs. Factor in the training costs. Factor in the flawed data. Factor in the toll this process is taking on everyone else’s morale. Factor in the looming teacher shortage that is the inevitable result of these practices. Factor in that we have systematically forced many visionary and vocal leaders out of our organizations to start their own charter schools. Factor in how history is going to remember us. Factor in your conscience.

Does the money the federal government threatens to withdraw exceed these costs?

Those of us down here on the ground have been scratching our heads and wondering for a while now.

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