Data, a double edged sword

A new book in the Effective International Schools Series entitled, Effective Data Management for Schools, has just been published. The book contains a variety of chapters addressing different aspects of the use of data in schools. Major topics covered are Effective Learning, Effective Operations and Effective Strategic Governance.

The final section of the book called “Effective School Networks” contains a chapter with my contribution, entitled, “When is data useful and when it is not the right resource?”  I reprint below an excerpt from the closing section of my chapter entitled,               “Data, A Double Edged Sword.

…ultimately, schools exist to support student learning and here is where the use of data can serve a worthwhile purpose or can conversely lead to misunderstandings or confusion about what the data actually means.

When it comes to measuring student learning, a school is no longer dealing with a completely tangible product that can simply be tabulated and analysed (although attempts to do so are often made). There are aspects of academic performance that can be delimited using standardized tests for example, but does this data accurately reflect the depth of student learning?

Many schools present various types of results to communicate the school’s effectiveness in supporting academic success. Such data sources might include college admissions results, grade point averages, SAT, MAP, ISA or IB scores. While this information is pertinent, it only tells part of the story. The pitfall is when a school focuses on the convenient and readily accessible data of standardized tests and then presents this information as a complete and accurate picture of student learning.

Schools must bear in mind that standardized tests tend to separate learners into shallow categories as opposed to assessing deep thinking and problem solving. In some countries, data derived from standardized testing has been used to fire teachers or close schools, even though such tests often measure narrow and superficial aspects of student learning.

Thankfully most international schools are not beholden to government controls that are often politically motivated. Instead international schools generally have the freedom to structure assessments in the service of student learning and the objectives of the school’s mission.

Some standardized assessments such as the International Schools Assessment (ISA) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams, which attempt to go beyond the superficial, can be of great value in helping schools determine the efficacy of programs and curriculum. But even these exams, which drill deeper than short answers, multiple choice or fill-in-the box type questions, should be viewed as assessing and presenting a facet of academic performance and not a holistic reflection of the complexity of learning.

When gathering learning data, schools should not ignore the “softer” or more open ended forms of assessment, such as portfolios, student descriptions about their own learning, as well as capturing learning through blogs, video or podcasts. While not easy to input on a spreadsheet, the anecdotal approach combined with some “hard” data sources can provide a well-rounded snapshot of student learning.

…data can provide powerful feedback and help support the change process in schools, when a purpose is clearly defined and when the results schools seek to gather and present are put into their proper context. School leaders must also accept that the use of data is not a panacea, especially when there is an attempt to portray the complexities of learning through numbers.

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