Jessica Cuthbertson is a literacy teacher who loves achievement data about her students – until she fears she’s drowning in numbers.
I have a confession to make: I love data. As a literacy teacher, I feel traitorous saying such a thing. Don’t get me wrong. I love words and poetry and prose too, but data is so … neat. Evenly-spaced rows on spreadsheets, columns of numbers, levels and layers, bar graphs, line graphs – documents that appear organized and precise and usable. Even if they aren’t.
Data doesn’t scare me. I know its strengths and limitations. I know what it tells me – this student performed in this way on this assessment at this moment in time. And I know what it doesn’t tell me – did they eat breakfast that day? Did they read the directions completely? Did they feel comfortable in the environment? Did they know what they could (and couldn’t) ask the proctor? Did they go into it thinking it was easy or hard? Did they think about it at all?
Information about our students at the beginning of the school year is a gift. Like the action-packed trailer of an anticipated film, such information offers teachers a “sneak peek” at the strengths, possible challenges and potential needs on their rosters. But it is just a snippet of what our students can do. Nothing more.
I received the gift of one-on-one 45-minute assessment appointments with my students the first two days of school. Our building decided to pilot an in-depth reading assessment system that was rolled out district-wide in kindergarten through fifth grades with our sixth- and seventh- graders, so that we would all have critical information about our readers right away.
In that time, I heard nearly 20 students read fiction and nonfiction texts at various levels. We talked about their summer, their genre preferences and their hopes and dreams for sixth grade. Beyond the academic snapshot, these appointments gave me the opportunity to begin building rapport and relationships with these readers before the first “regular” day of school. It was heaven.
And then the school year really started. And with it came … more assessments. More data. More information on my 65 students.
By the fifth day of school, my students had been assessed three times in my content area via the one-on-one reading assessment, a building-wide two-day writing assessment and an in-class pre-assessment outlined in the district unit-planning guide. And then an email arrived in my inbox with an attachment for an assessment schedule for the following week. Diagnostic computer-based assessments touted as “TCAP predictors” in reading, writing, math (and science at state-assessed grade levels) for all students with an end-of-August administration deadline.
Three assessments within the first five days of school and three class periods (or 270 minutes) zapped out of the following week’s schedule for more testing.
It was then that I began to wonder if I would be the first teacher to actually drown in data. Worse, I wondered and worried that my students were going to think that in art you create, in Spanish you speak, in science you experiment and in literacy … you take tests!
Sadly, if my students gauge their literacy learning based on the first two weeks of school, they are likely to believe that assessment is the equivalent of learning and that reading and writing is about performance, prompts, timed tasks and rubrics. And that’s just not okay with me.
Recently, an EdNews commentary reflected on the angst teachers feel at the beginning of the year awaiting TCAP results from the previous spring. Truth be told, I haven’t even begun to dig into TCAP data. Why would I? The results are months old, and sitting before me are piles and piles of fresh data. More data than I know what to do with. Easily a semester or even a year’s worth of teaching points. That is, if assessments subside long enough for teaching and learning to actually take place.
I love data. But in our quest to measure student learning, we waste valuable instructional time and then wonder why our students aren’t progressing further faster. And we pile data onto teachers and give them no collaborative time to dissect it, make sense of it and do something meaningful with the information.
We must ask ourselves: are we proctors or are we teachers? Are our students test-takers or are they learners?