Data: Education’s New “Dirty” Word

It seems that in some circles, data has come to be one of education’s “dirty” words.  I suspect I know why, and unfortunately, it is difficult to convince those people who think that way otherwise.

Many professions, such as medicine, law, finance, and even construction use data on a regular basis to inform their work.  If you were to go to the doctor’s office and get on the scale, the doctor would use that data to draw some conclusions and make some recommendations.  The doctor does not only use the scale and the number it gives however.  The doctor may also check your cholesterol, your blood pressure, and may make other observations that inform her of what it is you need to do or not do to preserve or improve your health.

Like other professions, education also benefits from using data.  When a teacher administers a formative assessment to her class, she reviews the results of the assessment and then determines if students need further instruction, or if they have demonstrated an understanding of the content taught, thereby, letting her move more deeply into the content or beyond.  Additionally, teams of teachers use time together as PLCs to look at student work and make determinations about units they’ve taught and content they’ve covered.  The team’s review of data and student work helps them decide how they proceed with their instruction.

Sadly, data has been given a bad connotation through the use of accountability measures, where often times, student performance is “boiled down” to a spreadsheet full of scores, or an accountability report that attempts to show a profile around school performance.

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This very narrow and limited view of student performance has led many to believe that school administrators are only concerned with number and scores, and that the faces of the students attached to those scores are null and void.

I believe that data is not a dirty word when used correctly and in the best interest of those it is intended to serve: students.  As a school level administrator, I must be able to manage the “tension” of using both quantitative and qualitative data to make instructional decisions for students and staff.  It can never be “or”. It must always be “and”. Because of the nature of my work, I move back and forth between scores and performance, as well as aggregated and disaggregated data, which helps inform me about groups of students and individual students.  Data (quantitative) should always tell one piece of the story.  For instance, I recently had teachers upload writing scores from a mid-year writing prompt that was administered and I wanted to look to see how students had done.  For one particular grade level, I noticed that the scaled scores for each student looked relatively low.  Before jumping to conclusions, I knew I needed some qualitative data to help inform me.  As it turned out, my teachers on this one particular team had used the pre-assessment for the writing prompt to help inform their instruction.  Had I not asked and not looked beyond the scores on the spreadsheet, I might have made other conclusions.  The writing scores did reflect students’ ability prior to instruction, therefore, after instruction, the scores should have looked differently.

Another example would be looking at a student’s fluency score on a universal screening tool.  For some students, their reading rate is low, however, they are accurate readers.  Without a qualitative discussion with the teacher, these students may look like they are not proficient with their reading, when in fact, they are slow but steady readers that have a high ability to comprehend what they read.

School districts, department heads, principals and teachers have relied on data for years.  Teacher observations of students, report cards and other assessments have all played a role in providing educators feedback to support student learning.  The advent of standardized testing linked to state and federal accountability frameworks has turned some educators and the public against using data when it has only been representative of one small sector of an assessment system or when no further qualitative investigations have taken place.

As we continue to live in an age of accountability where everyone is concerned about student achievement, it is imperative that those closest to the work (principals and teachers) use data in mindful ways that provide them an indicator of student performance. Principals should thoughtfully be working with teachers to engage in rich discussions about the scores and not only be looking at the aggregate or overall performance, but be mindful to not overlook the individual performances of students as well.  It is through that level of analysis that educators truly work as learning communities and adjust their instruction and intervene on behalf of students.

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Lastly, the truth is, behind every score is a student, and behind every student, is a story.  Those of us working closely with educational data need to ensure that every child’s story is told, so that every child may benefit from our collective efforts. If not, data will continue to be education’s new dirty word.


  1. Antonia Guccione said:

    One cannot have a discussion about data without having a discussion about the types of assessments being offered. Do they truly measure growth? Is there pre and post data? Are these assessments tied to important core content concepts? Further, what will students know and be able to do as a result of their endeavors?

    March 31, 2014
    • Tom Triumph said:

      The question teachers need to start with is: Does that score reflect what I know about my student’s ability?

      If the answer is “yes” then the follow-up should be: How did they get there?

      This second question lead to all sorts of discussions about home life, disabilities (both diagnosed and not), practices that have worked, etc. Then, with issues on the table, a host of solutions came out (which is the third question to ask). Our one session on data ended with in-depth conversations about students as people and solving their human problems.

      If the answer to the first question is “no” then what changes need to be made? There is a push to measure that is often misguided at the top. Non-classroom teachers have no idea the impact on time and moral that testing takes. It had better be worth it. For a year our SU pushed an completely inappropriate one-on-one test that would have taken me out of the classroom for a total of 15 days. Their rational was a) we needed to give some sort of assessment, b) the other schools were doing it so we had to. No logic, which kills all data.

      Tangential story…..

      One of my colleagues had this logic: Him: NCLB doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know; a waste of time. Me: It seems that half your class struggles with writing. Him: It’s only one test on one day, it doesn’t mean anything.

      This is the same colleagues who had this exchange about student progress: Him: What you expect, look at the home. Me: We have them six hours a day for 180 days for eight years–we should be able to bridge the gap. Him: You can’t fix stupid. So, is it nurture or nature? His response was simply to not take responsibility.

      April 6, 2014
  2. Mark Butler said:

    Good article. I think also that (with technology) students can benefit from being given more ownership of their own data.

    April 5, 2014

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