Data, Data Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink
“There is too much testing . . . just let them teach!” How many times have you heard that from parents and state legislators? I hear this mantra as a consultant and a school board member. Imagine a surgeon saying, “I don’t have time to run tests; just let me cut!” The public would not think of telling surgeons what to do, nor would surgeons consider conducting surgery without diagnostic data. Unfortunately, there is some truth in what teachers are saying because, in some instances, principals have become what I call “data collectors.” They collect data for no other reason than to showcase it for central office staff, who then present it to superintendents and school boards for publication. Little or nothing changes in some classrooms, but the amount of data, its intensity, and its dazzling graphic displays are confusing and downright overwhelming to the average parent. Most parents of low-achieving students lack what John Hattie calls the “language of school.” They do not know how to advocate for their child. In many instances, they blame the child and/or accept his or her failure as an indication of low ability. The patient of a failed surgery, on the other hand, would be outraged and file action if it was evident the diagnostic testing information was collected, never used, and instead sent to a hospital administrator’s office.
Over the years, I have seen the phrase “data-driven instruction” become such a driving force in our schools that some principals became data collectors in order to survive the new accountability pressure. These collectors are pretty easy to recognize. Their offices are often filled with professionally tabulated data binders. They may go as far as buying a beautiful display for all their data notebooks but often fail to use the data inside the binders to change practices. Numerous data-related faculty meetings are held and documented to include PowerPoint presentations for their portfolios that are shared with central office superiors. This they call “evidence-based learning.” They have mastered what John Kotter refers to as a “false sense of urgency.” What makes the urgency false is there is only an appearance of responding to data. Teachers cry foul and plead to be allowed to “just teach” because the data collected is either irrelevant and/or not used. They say it is just another thing to do! Sometimes it is, but it doesn’t have to be.
Collectors or collections fall into many categories, but here are four that I have noticed in my 40 years in this business:
1. Antique Data Collector: These are collectors who collect data over time. Their notebooks are beautifully displayed, labeled with the test administration dates and arranged in numerical order. They are shared only with visitors, preferably the superintendent and/or central office staff.
2. Delayed Response Collector: These principals, who have so much on their plates, or what Douglas Reeves calls “scut work,” have very good intentions to review the data with their staff. However, they either never find the time to respond or respond in an untimely manner.
3. Data, Data Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink: These collections of data include assessments that do not align with the objectives being taught and/or the time they are being introduced. Someone other than those providing the instruction determines the test content and the administration schedule. Of the four, this is the most time-consuming and the poorest use of teachers’ time.
4. The Data Terminator: These collectors’ responses may be arbitrary because their sole purpose is to intervene when the scores fall below expectations. Their mantra: “We have got to keep our scores up . . . I’m watching you!”
The answer is simple. Schedule time for teachers to bring (not send) and discuss data in a systematic and timely manner. It is their data, not yours. When I was a principal, I knew that I would be a delayed responder. So I chose to establish one day a week for teachers to bring data and solutions to me. It was the best decision I ever made. It really is a waste of a teacher’s time if you do not respond in a systematic and timely manner. Far worse is asking teachers to do something that does not provide helpful information. Therefore, ensure that the data used has content validity. Teacher-developed common assessments take care of this, but there are always other assessments used that must receive scrutiny. Steve Edwards, a national Solution Tree consultant, said it best when asked by my staff many years ago, “How do you know when there is there too much testing?” His response: “One test is too much if it does not change instruction!”