Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 2 of 2)

August 12, 2012 at 12:34 PM Leave a comment

Data is here to stay, and even hard-core test deniers are tiptoeing into the next phase. “Let’s trade a new list of details for those high stakes tests. Yeah…that’s the ticket”. No way! Clearly, we do not have adequate data, and that’s never the time to start throwing any of it away. Yet, as we move from denial into bargaining…can resolution be far behind?

Embracing student data can be a little like the grieving process. Achievement tests offer one approach to threshold data points – those which capture the minimum acceptable competency levels in a content area – but they can be rejected as inadequate on many counts. However, that does not eliminate their relevance, regardless of how much better that might feel. It just means we need more data.

Even educators who feel victimized by fallout from test scores are grudgingly coming to grips with the fact that data-driven instruction is here to stay. They continue to attack the tests with a vengeance in hopes of discarding their own failing report cards. But, their new tactic is elimination of achievement tests in exchange for other details and benchmarks. Indeed, the opponents of high stakes tests are tripping over one another as they rush to offer alternative data sources that offer a more complete picture of the child…all of which seem to draw the same conclusion. The kids are alright, and so are we.

What’s missing here is the notion, once again, that we can have it both ways. Remember, in many ways we are still in the brainstorming phase for database needs; nothing gets thrown away.

In many public schools, benchmark tests barely cause a ripple in school operations. Students in high-performing cohorts take the tests and move on; students in special populations may struggle, but only a handful of students raise serious concern. Ironically, these institutions also tend to be the ones that have more highly developed approaches to the whole child. They can afford to move beyond basic competencies and pursue higher order needs with their students. Still, subgroup failures persist.

When threshold scores on tests are not achieved, there is a necessary emphasis on sources of failure. Minimum expectations must be met, because the children will not excel at the next level unless they have a secure set of foundation skills. That is why achievement gaps tend to widen over time. However, understanding the children better will help us to serve them better. We just have to accept the test scores as part of the picture of the whole child at any given time over a longitudinal trajectory. And we have to support the growth of that child…including progress toward grade level proficiency in the basics.

Inequity in educational opportunity tends to track with income inequity. It will never be fair. Urban and suburban educators share concern for students of poverty as well as students with special needs and new English language learners. These educators come together and commiserate over the weaknesses of their special populations, ultimately challenging the relevance of tests for them. However, they could benefit more from sharing their strengths.

Many high-performing schools have an edge in programs for the whole child, but they give up too quickly on their marginalized student subgroups. Struggling systems tend to understand students who are at-risk and help them overcome obstacles daily, but they have so many students in need that they have a hard time getting to the whole child. How about a joining forces for the good…to share the secrets to their successes and set a standard for excellence in educating the whole child in every population. And dream and scheme for the day when even poor kids just take the test – no sweat – and move on.

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Entry filed under: ESEA-NCLB, School Leadership, Student Outcomes, Teacher Effectiveness.

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