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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Getting Past the Eye-Candy Test with Elementary Assessment Data

You can call it the “eye-candy test” problem.

It may not be as pronounced in education as it is in baseball. However, in almost every conversation I have with school district administrators we work with, they are focused on this core challenge: How can we make sure our data – not through some anecdotal perception or observation -- supports our decisions about how to improve student performance?

Brad Pitt played Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball" a story about how the baseball team began using data to try to level the playing field with more profitable teams in the league.

When the concept comes up, I picture the scene in the movie “Moneyball” that depicts Brad Pitt – who plays general manager Billy Beane -- getting fed up with how his old-school baseball scouts are trying to identify the best players so their cash-strapped major league team can compete with the richer teams like the New York Yankees.

“He passes the eye-candy test. He's got the looks. He's great at playing the part. He just needs to get some playing time,” one scout says, while another questions the same player’s confidence because of how good-looking his girlfriend is.

Those more anecdotal observations could be important as a piece of the puzzle, but if you focus on that, decision-making becomes too arbitrary, which is the point of the book and the movie. Statistics and data add so much more.

If you think about it, school districts, particularly at the elementary level, can easily find themselves in a similar place as those old-school baseball scouts. Most elementary assessment data is more qualitative where we’re testing certain skills that form the basis for a students’ education: like comprehension, word recognition, reading speed, etc., rather than a student’s knowledge level.

An administrator for an Illinois district we work with says schools have no shortage of data available to them  at the elementary level. The challenge is how to aggregate the data and present it to teachers in a meaningful way so that they can use it to accurately identify specific strengths and weaknesses for students.

When the district is able to easily give teachers access to those multiple data points that comprise running record assessments, the district is getting past the “eye-candy test,” and identify the areas where students need more support or even students who are more advanced and need to be placed in a gifted program.

“It really helped us find kids who we wouldn't have found without it just sitting there staring at us,” she said, noting that in the past a lot of those decisions were based on teacher perceptions.

Another Wisconsin district we work with on a data project mentioned the amount of common assessments teachers use, especially at the elementary level. “We just have to be using the data to drive instruction,” he said.

It’s a very powerful concept, and it’s exciting to work with districts who are at the point where this is a high priority.

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