Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bubble sheet season

As the end of the year madly approaches, the gymnasium is full of desks where the students sit and fill in their bubbles. A pin could drop and make infinitely more noise than the amount of learning that is (not) occurring.

The multiple choice tests range from 50 to 75 questions.

The kids are told they MUST stay for an hour.

On average, most are done ripping through the bubbles in about 20 minutes.

They sit there in sheer boredom waiting to be dismissed.

The hour is up and it's a mad dash to the door. All but a small handful of students are thankful just to get the hell-out-of there. When the gym fully clears out, the teacher makes their way to the bubble sheet scorer.

The computer crunches the data and spews out something like this:

What do you see? What do you know now that you didn't know before?

This kind of data will only lead teachers to better predict a kid's chances of passing or failing a test  than actually knowing the kid as a human being - as a learner.

There's a reason why Gerald Bracey once said:
There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all.
Teachers know how busy their day is. We have very little time to piss away. Every nanosecond we spend making, collecting and analyzing this kind of data is nanoseconds we are not actually engaging with kids in a meaningful relationship.

But let's not kid ourselves - those nanoseconds add up, and for many teachers, their day has been annexed by the data mongers.

Too many teachers have become agents of data and slaves to accountability. As if a good education simply comes from a teacher who counts the data so they can be held accountable.

Teachers are living in fear that someone might challenge their grading. When that parent, student or administrator comes knocking at your classroom door, you had better have a diabolical data managing system that clearly illustrates how you could have possibly given lil' Johnny that C. Teachers have resorted  to believing that you can point to your grade book and say "look at all those Cs, how could I have given him anything but a C."

When assessment becomes more about covering your own ass in fear of being held accountable and less about student learning, we fail our children in more ways than we would like to ever admit.


  1. Joe,

    This is outstanding!

    I propose the reason for all the data is that there are people who love numbers more than people. Therefore, they focus on data and not students. They seek to make teaching a scientific process instead of a artful practice; likely because they lack people skills. They are afraid to truly interact with others. They have found a home in education, where kids are no longer the focus. How can that be?

    Sad thing is, the majority of people are afraid of their math skills, so they believe that someone who can discuss numbers must be smarter, and therefore correct. Bad assumption.

    Keep plugging away, and know you have compatriots in this fight.

  2. Sadly Ric, I think you are really on to something when you say "there are people who love numbers more than people."

    I have met these people. They are not educators.

  3. Joe - as I read a post like this, I am struck by your implication that our only option as a field is all (the way your blog suggests it is) or nothing (the way you seem to suggest it should be). I agree that the testing pendulum has swung so far to an extreme that is causing actual harm to students and teachers. I agree that multiple choice items scratch at the surface when it comes to measuring learning. I agree that grading is a convoluted system that is often in place simply because "that's the way it's always been done."

    I do not agree that data are the problem. When educators consistently repeat that data equals numbers, our field remains trapped in place - seemingly between our desire to be viewed as professionals with the skills and abilities to make judgment calls about student learning based on the evidence we see on a daily basis and bringers of the light who "know" and "understand" our students based on emotional connections that you only understand if education is your calling. If conversations about data only reference MC tests or bubble sheets, we contribute to that tension.

    When data and math are used in the same sentence, we exclude a large majority of educators from the conversation for reasons that Ric suggested - people assume if they aren't good at math, they can't handle data. Again and again, people are referring to data as things that fit neatly into spreadsheets. In truth, there are numerous protocols for working with qualitative data - data that include student writing, performances, verbal comments, all sorts of messy and squishy stuff that is just as valuable as those spreadsheet friendly data. In truth, data analysis is about recognizing patterns, asking richer and deeper questions, and most importantly, providing us an anchor that we can review calmly, rationally, and with our colleagues who often seen things we don't. That doesn't mean data are objective, perfect, or the answer to all of problems. Sadly, for some people who are good at math, feel comfortable with numbers, or have been told that data are objective and the answer to all problems, they over-compensate. Most likely because few educators are provided the skills in how to analyze data in a meaningful way that enables them make connections to student learning. Teachers make hundreds of data-based decisions a day. Most of those decisions happen as a part of an internal dialogue. The conversation now is about taking some of those internal dialogues, engaging with others in order to see patterns, ask questions and improve teaching and learning.

    Data are information. Data are facts. Data are evidence of student learning. Our strength as a profession is knowing which data collect and which questions to ask. As a member of one what might call the “data community”, I have yet to meet someone who “loves numbers more than people”. In my experience, when that has happened, the person had a disability identified on the autism spectrum disorder.

    PS - The KR20 value on that test looks pretty solid. Wonder if it was a teacher designed test or designed by an outside agency or publisher...

  4. I should have added, if someone is looking to improve their data sophistication or knowledge, I highly recommend anything by Bracey (cited by Joe above) as well as the great book "Statistics: A Spectator Sport" by Jaeger. It's an older book but completely revolutionizes how the reader views quantitative data. In terms of squishy data, books on action research often contain great protocols for working with qualitative data.


Follow by Email