Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fighting the Data Vortex: How high stakes testing is sucking the life out of education

Let me just start this post out by saying that I am an Algebra 1 teacher in the state of Texas. For those of you who have no context for this predicament, this means I am in the one math course that is a state tested subject and that students are required to pass the state assessment in order to graduate. Campuses and districts are judged based on those scores yearly. If you are not in a similar situation, it is hard to explain the enormous pressure on students, teachers, campuses and districts to have high scores every year.

In my district we have historically done fairly well, especially given the lower socio-economic mix we have in our district and the disparities that usually implies. However, we are not immune to the intense push for higher and higher scores. This driving force has created what I like to term as the data vortex mostly because it is sucking the life out of true education and turning the art of teaching into a micromanaged system to collect more data so that we can make "data-driven decisions" so that our scores -the data- will improve and we will be viewed as a superior district by the state and by the general public. Never mind that this is the same public that claims they do not want teachers "teaching to the test" but if the school's test scores are not high enough for the ranking they, the parents,  desire, they will move their children and their money to a different district or campus.

So educators are in a bit of a catch 22 if you will. We are caught in the middle of a heavily flawed system of accountability for education and the only way to be successful as defined in the system is to sacrifice the real education of students and train them to succeed on one day, on one test, that will measure their worth as a student and determine their eligibility for graduation. A culmination of 13 years of hard work will boil down to one performance on one day; how many adults would crumble under that kind of pressure?

At the district level, many districts have met the fear of falling short with micromanagement of the classroom teacher all in the name of data. Teachers are given tests that mirror the state assessment that they are required to give students. Which at first may not sound too terrible. However, when the realization hits that the State creates the tests to be so difficult that a 43% correct is considered a passing rate, it is cause for pause. This means that the tests, which teachers are often required to count as test grades and are often dictated when they give them and how they can even grade them, are designed similarly where the average student will make around a 45-50%.  Now granted, there are some students who will do much better than that, and conversely there are others who will give up and stop trying because they can't seem to understand more than one or two questions. Usually a curve system or scale score is developed so that the students will not have very poor grades in the grade book, knowing that the expectation is that most students would not receive a score comparable to their coursework average and they will need a "cushion" for their scores.

These unit tests serve an important purpose from the district standpoint as they provide data to pour through, evaluate, compare, and utilize to create a plan of attack to improve because from the district standpoint, the end goal is to improve the scores. They also give students experience with the style of testing that they will face at the end of the year from the state. Teachers and administrators spend hours desegregating data and trying to formulate the perfect plan to have a higher rating at the end of the school year. The plan usually seems to work on the surface, but it is not without casualties.

The first casualty is often the autonomy of the classroom teacher. As stated before, teachers are given exact mandates in the way of someone else designing tests, the timeline of when they must test, how they must grade the test, what weight it has in their grade book, etc. It appears as though the teacher would still have some autonomy about how they instruct their students or present new materials or concepts, but if they want their students to do well (and if they do not want to be singled out in the data vortex as one who did not perform as well) they must teach in such a way that students will be able to be more and more successful on the tests, not necessarily successful in the learning of the concepts. The state provides a specific list of required skills that should be taught, and districts usually have a curriculum in place that helps teachers ensure they are addressing these skills appropriately, but this data vortex system takes it much farther than that. Many times teachers are pushed to sacrifice mastery in order to meet the requirements of the scope of content (something that goes against most teachers' core educational beliefs). Teachers tend to feel as though they are not trusted as professionals and that they have no control of true learning happening in their classroom.

A great teacher, in a good educational setting, does so much more than deliver content. Teachers challenge students to think, they give students a way to connect their learning to the world, they mentor, they advise, they even mother sometimes. Teachers love their students; they are their 'kids'. Lessons about self-efficacy in learning, responsibility for your own education, learning to cooperatively work together for an end goal, as well as lessons in character, work ethic and organization all take place in a great teacher's classroom, none of which will increase test scores. A great teacher gets to know their students and knows that 'John' only gets to eat if he comes to school and that 'Jenn' has a father on his deathbed and that 'Savannah and Stacy' are sisters that live in a motel room with 3 other siblings and two adults. A great teacher never equates these students with a test score or data because they are people, they are children; they are so much more than one test on one day. But that great teacher is held accountable if they do not make the data more important than the student and that teacher is rarely recognized as "great" because that kind of greatness will never show up on a standardized test. Time and again, the data vortex will suck the life and passion out of that teacher because that great teacher is tired of the fight.

The second casualty, by default of the first, is the student learning component. As aluded to before, students are reduced to numbers on a page, their learning to a score. Students are very aware of this fact and they are not fans of the data vortex at all. In general most students want to do well. However, when they are given tests that are designed for the majority of them to only achieve about a 50%, regardless of what adjusted grade is entered into the gradebook, students are very aware that they do not understand half of the material they are testing over (or more likely, the questions ar worded in such a way that they can not discern what material it is testing). Students, at least at the ninth grade level, will often give up if they know they are not going to understand a majority of what is placed in front of them. Now in the defense of the districts, this type of exerience does prepare the students for the state standardized testing situation since it is presented in much the same manner. In my opinion, this is the piece that helps students perform better on the state assessment. Giving students glimpses of the type of questioning they will be faced with is essential. Gathering data on how well they are doing on tested domains is even very useful. When the data becomes high risk every single time the students are faced with it because it counts for more than half of their classroom learning average, that is detrimental and students tend to shut down. It magnifies the pressure of the one test on one day scenario and pulls that same stress and emotion into a weekly or monthly event. In Texas, the extra component for high school students is that if the student does not pass the state mandated end-of-course test for five different subjects, they cannot graduate with their class, regardless of grades, attendance, perseverance, determination, and 13 years of public education. Students begin to perceive that their learning, their education, is less valuable than their scores. If we want students who enter adulthood with a sense of responsibility for their own learning we must give them the impression that self-efficacy is important and that learning and education is more than a testing event.

Here's the catch, as stated above, this is a flawed system. Accountability in education is important; we do not want a system where educators are given full-range to teach whatever, however, and whenever they wish with or without proper qualifications for teaching in that content area. Parents are deserving of a system that does give them some insight into the school campus or district that their student attends as their children are their greatest treasure and the future of our world. Districts are locked into this system and when their school or district does not meet certain standards, despite how flawed the system is, the general public,(the same public who screams that they do not want teachers to teach to the test) use the state rating on the state assessment to determine the viability of the school or district. If a parent or parent group only utilizes the data to determine the health or viabilty of a school, they are falling into the same data vortex trap that the districts are in. If those same parents or general public groups were making the decisions for the district about curriculum, likely they would make the same decisions regarding testing more to get more data and practice to do better on the scores so that public perception is that the school is improving- based solely on data and test scores.

 Maybe the change needs to begin with public and parent perceptions and definitions of what a good educational setting, what a great school, classroom or teacher looks like. Would a parent be happier to have a teacher who knows their child, teaches their child and finds ways to reach their child where they are, regardless of test scores? Or would that same parent rather the child practice and get experience to increase test scores? Or maybe it would be best to find a commonality of the two, if that is even possible. In my opinion, parents and the general public are our only hope for change. Teachers are limited in what they can say or do and continue to be an educator and administrations are locked into what is required of them until something changed. I am going out on a limb, just posting this blog post. I love my district and my campus and have amazing administrators and friends that I work with and for. There are many things that I do not agree with, but I still love the people. I also am logical enough to see the dilemma that districts are in, mostly through no fault of their own. Teacher groups have spoken to law makers for years, but let's face it, they are not the voice that needs to be heard. Parents select homes and spend the almighty dollar in places where the perception is there are great schools. Great schools are defined at the moment in public eye as one with high test scores year in and out. I do not have a solution, only a lot of thoughts, questions and maybe just something to make you think. If nothing else, I hope I inspire you to let that teacher that is working hard to reach your children, despite the pressures of high stakes testing and the data vortex that surrounds them, know that you see them; that you know they are a great educator and that you appreciate them. Sometimes just that simple gesture is enough to keep up the fight and hold tight to the passion.

~Mrs. R


  1. Public education is an important building block for our nation to have a citizenry who can make informed decisions. This blog does an excellent job of pointing out the problems connected with a one-time test to determine eligibility for graduation -- and that test only requiring a 50% pass rate. Sounds like the test is designed more to determine comparative standing among students than to establish standards of basic knowledge. Otherwise all would either meet the standard of basic knowledge or they would not.
    Last week PBS aired a series of documentaries on education, each of them an education in itself. What I took away from that and from your article is that there is no single answer, no silver bullet. What students in Southside Chicago need to grow and prosper is different from what students in rural Nebraska need. Or students in immigrant-rich communities like Aurora, Colorado, compared to Silicon Valley scions.
    How to have top-notch public education is a question for us as the public is rather like the 'chicken or the egg.' Because we, as a general population, have not had an excellent public education, we will not make informed decisions about public education. We need input from professionals in the field -- you teachers.
    Thank you for this article. I am interested to here more.

  2. See what I mean about my public education? 'Hear' rather than 'here.'

  3. Thank you so much for your feedback Claudia. I hope to continue writing about education as it is a passion that drives my life. I am hopeful that the public will learn to have more of a voice in the foundation of our children's educational lives.