Lillie G. Jessie

Lillie G. Jessie, an author and a consultant, is the former award-winning principal of Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary School, a high minority, highly diverse, Title I school in Woodbridge, Virginia. She is currently the CEO of High Expectation Learning Institute.

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!”


Krysten Brady

I loved reading this article! I teach fifth grade special education and administer a myriad of assessments throughout the year; at the beginning of the year, at the end of each quarter, and at the end of the school year for reading, writing, and math. I needed to shift my thinking about assessments because they are not going away. I can look at assessments as either another thing to do or as informative tools for my instruction. The assessment data that I am required to collect is valuable, but at the same time intimidating. I wish there was more time for teachers “to bring (not send) and discuss data in a systematic and timely manner” with colleagues and collaborate; maybe this is something I need to facilitate at my school this year.

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ashley carroll

Recently I said goodbye to a great teacher because of the scores of a state test. This teacher has taught for 10 years in the same subject and was failed by our learning community. He has found another teaching job but was outraged at the culture among the students towards his subject, it was his first year in our district. I feel as if our learning community failed him by not assisting him with changing how the students felt about his subject area.

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Entertaining blog! I often feel that some of the mandated assessments are inappropriate and non useful to the common core I teach. What is exceptionally frustrating is the lack of leadership with regards to certain mandated assessments. Certain assessment that I am required to use sit on my shelf unturned because I simply do not even know how to read them or understand them. However, through grade level teams, we have been able to come up with wonderful, appropriate assessments that truly inform and guild our instruction.

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Sami Kirk

This is a great article! I teach kindergarten and feel the data I am required to collect is beneficial but at the same time daunting. I love teaching kindergarten because I feel they show a lot of growth. I understand the importance of data, but giving assessments after assessments becomes repetitive and I feel my students lose their learning time.

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Robin Droter

I also enjoyed this post. I have been one to chant the mantra of "Let me teach", but it is not because I have failed to see the importance of data. I have simply failed to see evidence that the data is doing any good. I moved from a high stakes testing grade because of the relentless and pointless collection of data that was never reviewed until the students had left or the curriculum had moved on. But now I am required to test my Kindergartners in ways that are not age and grade level appropriate and the assessments do not even begin to compare with how the curriculum guides us to teach. Data, data everywhere and not a drop to drink. How do I use data that is irrelevant to what I have taught? Or that was unfairly collected? I have moved forward in creating my own assessments based on how I teach and what the students should be learning and that data I can use. The other tests collect dust. And waste time. I long for the day when we are allowed to teach based on our assessments that are relevant and useful.

Let us teach according to best practices and relevant data.

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Caressa Hewitt

I really enjoyed reading your post. My school uses data quite often, and I love it. I love looking at my data for my classroom to see where my students are improving and where I need to offer more assistance. I am a data-guru. I love data and I love reports. However, you are right. If we focus so much on collecting data instead of planning instruction, than our data is really worthless. I use my data to help me collaborate with my team member in my school on strategies and ways to build my students growth.

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Kiley Jackson

I really enjoyed this article. The collection collectors categories were interesting to read. There have been times when my district has asked for data but it wasn't relative to what we were teaching or we didn't understand why we were collecting the data. The next two weeks my third graders will be completing our state assessments. Every year I have taught third grade we have looked at the data after the students who took the test are gone. I feel that data isn't relative to take a lot of information from when we will be getting a new group of students. I think it is important when collecting data to focus on student learning and how do we improve our students' academic ability.

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Stavroula Rojo

As you point out, data collection has very little meaning unless there is a goal and an intent for it. I have worked with administrators that either did not know how, or did not have the time, to effectively review assessment data with their staff. I have also seen teachers who have aggregated data but are not sure how to form a plan of action based on said data results. They only focused on who failed the test as an indication of who should be in tutorial groups. Then there is the gathering and considering data only from major, summative assessments, or in isolation (for example only for a specific content area). Such information does not paint a whole picture for the student, the class, or the school, and as you stated... at times it has very little use. What you did for your teachers sounds ideal and I wish more administrators would make the time to sit down and have data/solutions conversations with their teachers!

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Marissa Wells

My thoughts go back to school when we took standardize tests every year, but never really saw what that data was used for or saw any change in the teaching strategies used to help us learn. Teachers "taught the test" instead of using the research data to teach affectively so that we knew the information to take the test without the test being fed to us. You a good point about schools using "data-driven instruction" to put on a front that a school's data collection is useful, when in reality the data sits on a shelf and collects dust. I think teachers are justified when they cry "just let us teach" because teachers and students need to be supported with a curriculum that doesn't just make sure students know answers to tests or how to take tests in general, but can use the information effectively and apply the information in their daily lives.

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Diana Everman

I enjoyed reading your post. Data based instruction is great UNLESS the student is no longer the focus. :) When teachers spend hours putting together data instead of working on instructional techniques to help kids then data is no longer effective! GREAT post!

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