Data: A New Conversation

Chris McNutt
February 2, 2019
In an era where standardized measurement is a given, and it isn’t going away any time soon — why don’t we change the data measured?

In an era where standardized measurement is a given, and it isn’t going away any time soon — why don’t we change the data measured?

In a recent conversation on our podcast with Dr. Susan Engel, a brilliant childhood development psychologist, she mentioned — why aren’t we measuring students differently? As a jaded educator, when I hear data, standardization, testing — anything in this tone — I am dismayed and assume the worst. And if we were to measure students in another way — say creatively or by their leadership qualities — wouldn’t this be too subjective to gauge? After all, we use multiple choice tests because of their practicality (even if they’re not accurate as a means of intelligence.)

But she made me come to a firm realization: all the data we reference for progressive education — from the studies of Ruth Butler on motivation to the findings on relationships by Maddolyn Rittis measured scientific data. If it’s possible for data to support these findings, how could they be applied to schools? Could we change the narrative of state testing to that of measured “21st century skills” and student-centeredness?

Given the situation of the United States’ education system, it is highly unlikely that we’ll see an end to standardization soon. However, if we make the case for alternative data — it could revitalize it. Even if standardized testing wasn’t eliminated, the findings would bolster the claim that standardized testing is harmful to practically everything. Therefore, I propose we measure more, not less. It may seem counterintuitive, but if it’s not possible to trust schools without oversight (at least, beyond the community), then let’s fight fire with fire.

What could we measure?

Motivation and Curiosity

Do students want to learn? Are they pushing themselves to succeed just because they want to? As Audrey Amrein and David Berliner summarize in The Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning, students are not motivated by achieving on tests. I mean — duh — teachers know this. And if we’re only measuring test data — who cares? Many districts are trying to stay afloat and their assessment is purely on increasing those scores.

Imagine we introduced the same measurements as Ruth Butler’s motivation studies? We’d simply introduce a 7 bubble Scantron answer at the end of the test:

How likely are you to ask questions and seek out more information on what you’ve learned? (1: not at all, 7: highly likely)

I’ll leave it up to the scientists to phrase that question better — but this is the same line of thought of any motivation study. Almost all are a pre/post study of questions like these. Yes, they’re subjective. Note: all tests are subjective.

With a heavy-handed approach, this would force schools to adapt. Professional development would situate itself on: how do we get kids to be curious? This would hopefully lead down a progressive path, as now progressive education is adapted to suit: how do we get kids to pass the test?

Social and Emotional Well-being

When so few students are happy at school (49% in 4th grade, 26%[!] in 8th grade, according to the NAEP), there’s a crisis. If a highly weighted question on our tests asked:

Do you feel happy at school?

Or when 41% of students feel unsafe, due to bullying, school culture (racism, sexism) or the threat of violence, why are we not listening louder? 7.1% of students in 9th-12th grade reported an attempt at suicide in the last year! While bureaucrats analyze why a district didn’t achieve 3% growth metrics on the science section of the SAT, real issues are festering. What if a question asked:

Do you feel safe at school?

Do you feel valued as a member of your school’s community?

Have you ever felt discriminated against by your peers due to your background?

Have you ever felt discriminated against by your teachers and/or school administrators due to your background?

Do you feel like you could confide in a teacher at your school?

In another podcast, I learned this data is measured by Turnaround for Education, a firm which works with schools to coach them to better practice. This is a fantastic program and I applaud those that use it — however, why must we pay this? Why is it optional? How sick have we become as a nation if we’re not at a red alert stage reacting to this data?

I guarantee if these questions were asked to most schools, a failing grade would follow. Therefore, schools would jump into support structures — they’d need to teach educators to love and care (which most of them want to, but pressures may have driven them down a dark path.) Imagine all of America’s schools competitively pushing to have the most valued, most cared for, students.

Creativity, Leadership, and other “soft skills”

If we’re to have an innovative society, we need people who aren’t robotic logicians. At the chance of sounding repetitive, why not ask?:

Do you consider yourself a leader with traits to back it up?

Do you consider yourself a creative person?

Even beyond that, although it would be insanely subjective, would it hurt to include questions that measured creativity on tests? As of now, “creative solutions” on tests aren’t rewarded — instead, students are judged based off adherence to a rubric. What they think doesn’t actually matter.

The point is, I’m not necessarily a fan of asking subjective questions via testing. In my view, we shouldn’t have testing at all — leave it up to individual communities to develop what’s best for them. But what’s realistic? If standardized testing is such a startling industry, we could integrate life-changing concepts to the field. They’d still be manipulated, profited-upon, and wildly misused, but at least we’d go beyond all of this that’s already happening in service to multiple choice tests. It forces a conversation that needs to happen without a radical overthrow. It’s a safe change that will lead those to consider progressive thought. After all, if one starts to question these things, it opens the path to diving deeper down the rabbit hole.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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